International Human Rights Day 2023: The time to correct course on UN drug policy & human rights is now

Demonstration by the Toronto OPS


International Human Rights Day 2023: The time to correct course on UN drug policy & human rights is now

11 December 2023

On the 10th of December, the UN celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Last week, just before this auspicious milestone, another historical human rights moment unfolded in Vienna as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) formally launched its new landmark report on the human rights dimensions of drug policies.

In the report, Mr Volker Turk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights unequivocally recognised that prohibitionist drug policies drive widespread human rights violations, and fuel discrimination. Given the serious, ongoing and unmitigated human rights violations that are meted out in the name of drug control, Mr Turk’s strong condemnation of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is urgent and welcome.

When the report was released, 134 NGOs from all over the world joined a collective statement welcoming its findings and concrete recommendations to transform global drug policies away from the failed punitive paradigm.

The report’s launch in Vienna, the heart of the UN drug control system, took place in an electric environment. For decades, the UN drug control bodies have delivered little to no progress in aligning drug policies with human rights. In fact, many actors in the drug control regime remain wedded to the failed policies of prohibition and punishment. The strong report from OHCHR was not well received by many of them.

While human rights issues and actors have become increasingly visible and present at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the last resolution explicitly focusing on human rights was passed 15 years ago, in 2008. Equally problematic is the fact that no CND resolution has ever encouraged or recognised the contributions of UN human rights entities to the UN drug control debate.

Instead, progress on UN drug policy has taken place outside of the Vienna setting. In the past year, new ambitious resolutions have been passed at both the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council that have elevated critical, and previously neglected, topics such as the rights of Indigenous Peoples and farmers, racial justice and unequivocal support for harm reduction. It is high time for the CND to catch up with these policy developments or risk sliding into irrelevance.

At the launch of the OHCHR report, which was co-sponsored by 15 member states, the European Union and several UN agencies in addition to OHCHR (namely UNAIDS, UNDP and WHO), panellists all made clear that a ‘business as usual’ approach to drug policy would be unconscionable in light of the devastation and failure of punitive approaches:

“Colombia needs to solve this situation in order to overcome the violence that keeps us from jumping to another level of development. After years and years of seeing that consumption of illegal substances has not decreased, we share the view that we need to bring a more modernised approach to international drug policy.” - H.E. Ambassador Laura Gil, Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Vienna at the launch of the OHCHR report, 7th December 2023.
“When we go to the CND next year, I hope we can be honest about where we are and have practical discussions about where we need to be and how to get there. This report provides an excellent overview of the problems and shortcomings of the current approach and clear guidance on how to course correct. This is not about tinkering around the edges, but as outlined in this report, is about a fundamental shift in how we approach drug use and support our communities to lead.” Christine Stegling, Deputy Executive Director, UNAIDS at the launch of the OHCHR report, 7th December 2023.

The UNODC was notable in its absence in supporting the launch event, or indeed in welcoming the OHCHR report in any way. It should be acknowledged that the agency has done some important work on human rights at an operational level, and on certain issues such as compulsory drug detention and the HIV response for people who use drugs. However, UNODC has historically failed to systematically centre human rights in its work. The clearest examples of this failure include the lack of reference to, or recommendations towards, the human rights dimension of drug policies in the annual World Drug Report; or its ongoing silence in the face of grave human rights violations committed in the name of drug control, such as the death penalty. The lack of forceful defence and promotion of the decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use - a policy that is at the centre of the UN System Common Position on drugs - is also deeply problematic.

For the past three years, on International Human Rights Day, IDPC has sent global sign-on letters to the UNODC Executive Director, Ghada Waly, urging her to take up the issue of human rights more systematically within the work of this UN drugs agency. Each time, these letters have gone unacknowledged, and unanswered.

The presentation of OHCHR’s report in Vienna is a historical moment that builds on the encouraging momentum over the past decade in firmly centring human rights in UN drug policy debates. It is cause for hope that true transformational change is coming that heralds a genuine paradigm shift away from repression and punishment towards drug policies that truly prioritise human rights, health, development and social justice.

As we mark the 75th anniversary of the most important UN human rights document in history, we call on the entire UN system - including UNODC and the CND - to prioritise human rights as the most fundamental principle in drug policies and programmes. This will also require political courage and leadership from like-minded Member States that have traditionally promoted a human rights-based approach to drug policy to ensure that human rights remain high on the CND’s agenda by introducing new progressive resolutions and language, and pushing the UNODC to take on a stronger stance on pressing human rights issues going forward.