Human Rights and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime: Accountability or Window Dressing?


Human Rights and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime: Accountability or Window Dressing?

11 June 2012

by Damon Barrett

One of the most troubling realities of drug control is that some of its key indicators of success are also key indicators of human rights risk.

When we talk about hectares of crops eradicated we have to think about subsistence farming communities, family income and food insecurity, not to mention the right to health in the context of herbicides sprayed onto farms and villages from above. We have to consider human displacement as a result of the destruction of people’s livelihoods, and the effects of eradication on fuelling insurgencies and conflict.

When celebrating tons of drugs seized and related prosecutions we have to think through police brutality, military interventions against drug gangs, fair trial standards, prison conditions, and inhuman sentencing such as the death penalty.

And even when we think about the most seemingly innocuous of statistics—how many people use drugs—we are necessarily led to think about stigma and discrimination associated with drug use, racial disparities in the application of drug laws, access to healthcare and HIV prevention, the right to privacy and bodily integrity in the context of stop and search policing and strip searches, and, of course, abuses in the name of "drug treatment."

It is for these reasons that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has been for so long, and remains, in such a difficult position, caught between the UN’s overarching aim of the promotion and protection of human rights, and its role as guardian of the international drug control system. They are two regimes that do not go hand in hand, and just as indicators of success in drug control can be indicators of human rights risks, so too can successes in UNODC’s own work in the context of drug enforcement capacity building and technical assistance, and in crop monitoring, be indicators of its involvement in human rights violations.

It has not gone unnoticed in Vienna. Last week UNODC released a groundbreaking human rights position paper, clarifying the agency’s guidance in cases when its work may conflict with human rights norms. It follows on from a somewhat secretive UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, an initiative of the secretary-general that while important remains entirely internal to the UN system.

More directly related to its work, UNODC’s position paper comes after several years of research and advocacy by human rights NGOs that called for greater clarity from UNODC of its position on human rights, and its guidelines for staff, including in several high-profile reports.

These reports identified instances when UNODC projects facilitated the arrests that led to death sentences or executions as well as the development of drug detention centres, where former detainees told of being subject to forced labour and cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.

These examples were published in Harm Reduction International’s Complicity or Abolition? The Death Penalty and International Support for Drug Enforcement and Human Rights Watch’s The Rehab Archipelago: Forced Labor and Other Abuses in Drug Detention Centers in Southern Vietnam, among others.

The UNODC paper specifically cites both practices. On the death penalty, UNODC states that if, in spite of interventions and efforts:

a country actively continues to apply the death penalty for drug offences, UNODC places itself in a very vulnerable position vis-à-vis its responsibility to respect human rights if it maintains support to law enforcement units, prosecutors or courts within the criminal justice system ... At the very least, continued support in such circumstances can be perceived as legitimizing government actions. If, following requests for guarantees and high-level political intervention, executions for drug-related offences continue, UNODC may have no choice but to employ a temporary freeze or withdrawal of support.

On drug detention, UNODC expressed concerns about documentation reporting forced labor, cruel treatment, and even torture, and said:

Direct UNODC support to any institution in which the above violations are reported places UNODC at an unacceptably high risk of providing aid or assistance to human rights abuses. UNODC must in such cases either work with these institutions to improve the human rights situation, or to consider withdrawal of support. In countries where such centres are present, UNODC should support government efforts to implement an evidence-base alternative to such centres, including voluntary drug dependence treatment programmes at community level. UNODC should also be clear in a call to the government to end all forms of arbitrary detention and to make available voluntary, low-cost, community-based drug dependence treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration.

The issue, of course, is application. According to the document UNODC is preparing to take steps to operationalize the paper, through the development of a "human rights planning tool," in order to ensure the agency’s operations are consistent with its guidance from design through to implementation. It is a similar concept to Harm Reduction International’s Human Rights Impact Assessment project, currently in development.

The UNODC position paper is pitch-perfect with respect the bringing the agency’s work in line with other UN bodies, including those devoted to health and human rights. It has the potential to have a seismic impact on human rights and drug policy.

The true measure of the paper’s success, however, will be the impact it makes on programming and future projects. Much hangs on the "planning tool," however dry this may sound, as it remains to be seen whether these words on paper can be put into practice in a transparent way, so that UNODC can be held accountable for them. As Prof Paul Hunt said while UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, "Without accountability, human rights can become no more than window dressing."

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Related Profiles

  • Harm Reduction International (HRI)
  • Open Society Foundations (OSF)
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)