UN High Commissioner for Human rights calls for transformative change in drug policy in ambitious new report

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UN High Commissioner for Human rights calls for transformative change in drug policy in ambitious new report

20 September 2023

“We must … stop the war on drugs. Instead, let us focus on transformative change, crafting drug policies which are based on evidence, which put human rights at their centre…”

- Volker Turk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 66th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Volker Turk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, pulled no punches calling out the failure and the damage of the ‘war on drugs’ in a powerful statement at this year’s 66th Session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. In doing so, he set the tone for a progressive Human Rights Council Resolution on drug policy that was adopted by consensus a few weeks later. This resolution (52/24) mandated the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to produce a contribution to an upcoming high-level meeting on global drug policy in Vienna next March.

The resulting report (A/HRC/54/53) is being formally launched today in Geneva. Titled “Human rights challenges in addressing and countering all aspects of the world drug problem” , this ambitious report strongly reaffirms Mr Turk’s conviction that transformative change is urgently needed. It clearly lays out the far-reaching and severe consequences that punitive drug policies have on human rights, and also notes that the global drug control regime has contributed to this trend.

As explained in IDPC’s analysis of the report, the OHCHR states that harm reduction is a central element of the right to health, and strongly recommends the decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use – echoing a now long-standing recommendation from the broader UN system, as well as political commitments made to remove restrictive laws and policies in the 2021 Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS. The report also elevates the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, an issue that has been long sidelined by the UN drug control system. However, the increasing global reckoning on decolonisation has brought the impact of drug control on Indigenous Peoples into the foreground. Just a few weeks ago, Bolivia officially initiated the process for the World Health Organization to review international restrictions on the coca leaf as racist prejudices drove its prohibition in 1961.

The boldest move in the report is the call on governments to consider the responsible regulation of drugs as a way of taking control of illegal drug markets. Because legal regulation creates a conflict with the current international drug control treaty system, UN bodies have so far shied away from recommending this policy option. Today, the UN High Commissioner has broken that taboo, making OHCHR the first UN body to do so, and this will undoubtedly trigger an urgently needed debate at the UN level as the human cost of the drug war continues to mount.

133 civil society and community organisations have issued a joint statement today to welcome this historic report and the ambitious transformative agenda that the High Commissioner has outlined. The statement calls on governments, the UN and others to act on the report’s recommendations and use it as a catalyst to “reform and rebalance the global drug control regime, and national drug laws and policies”.

Though shying away from the issue of legal regulation, a core group of 10 countries including Switzerland, Mexico, Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Greece, Guatemala, Paraguay, Portugal and Uruguay welcomed the report in a joint statement at the Human Rights Council that emphasised both decriminalisation and harm reduction - a significant step forward in recognising the centrality of both policies to a human rights-based approach to drugs.

The historical focus on punishment, criminalisation, racist and colonial prejudices and ‘zero-tolerance’ is untenable in the extreme. The High Commissioner has broken open a fossilised stalemate within the UN’s drug control system, which will build pressure to irrevocably change the terms of the drug policy debate.