NGOs urge UNODC's Executive Director to mark Human Rights Day with a call to reform drug policies that entrench inequality


NGOs urge UNODC's Executive Director to mark Human Rights Day with a call to reform drug policies that entrench inequality

6 December 2021

To: Ms Ghada Waly, Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

2nd December 2021

Dear Ms. Waly,

Subject: Open letter on UNODC statement on International Human Rights Day 2021

We urge you to mark International Human Rights Day 2021 by calling on Member States to change drug policies and practices that violate human rights and perpetuate inequality and discrimination.

We are writing to you ahead of International Human Rights Day 2021, which will take place on the 10th December amidst escalating global demands for the reform of laws and practices that entrench racial discrimination and social inequality, including drug policies. Last year, IDPC – together with dozens of other civil society and community organisations – called on you to issue a statement on International Human Rights Day urging Member States to change drug laws and practices that undermine health and human rights. A year later, we ask you to seize this day as an opportunity to show UNODC´s alignment with other UN entities in calling for an end to drug policies and practices that perpetuate inequality and discrimination, and violate human rights.

For decades, punitive drug policies have driven widespread human rights abuses, as has been amply documented by the UN. These include the death penalty for drug offences; extrajudicial killings; arbitrary detention, often masquerading as ‘rehabilitation’; the denial of access to life-saving harm reduction services; widespread barriers to accessing controlled medicines for pain relief; the criminalisation of people who use drugs, subsistence farmers and others groups in situations of vulnerability; corporal punishment; and mass incarceration. In all of these cases, draconian drug policies have disproportionately affected people marginalised on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity, and economic status, thus entrenching inequality and discrimination.

Along 2021, a broad range of UN entities called on Member States to reform drug policies with discriminatory outcomes. In June 2021, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a landmark study on arbitrary detention and drug polices, which found that ´the war on drugs may be understood to a significant extent as a war on people. Its impact is often greatest on those who are poor, but also frequently overlaps with discrimination in law enforcement directed at vulnerable groups´. At the same time, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a new ‘Agenda towards transformative change for racial justice and equality´, highlighting that ´The discriminatory application of criminal law must be tackled at every stage, including by reforming drug-related policies´. The High Commissioner´s proposal led to Human Rights Council Resolution 47/21, which contains key commitments to uproot systemic racism in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. The Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS, adopted in June 2021, also showcased the international community´s commitment to ending inequalities as a step towards ending AIDS. Lastly, the new UN system Common Position on Incarceration, led by UNODC in partnership with other UN entities, notes ‘the overrepresentation of minority and marginalized groups among prisoners, many of whom are charged with petty and nonviolent offences’ and commits the UN system to ‘support reform efforts aimed at ensuring proportionate and individualized sentencing and alternatives to conviction or punishment in appropriate cases, including for minor drug-related offences’.

These various commitments emerging across the United Nations are aligned with the 2018 Chief Executives Board’s UN System Common Position on drug-related matters, which makes clear that ‘National drug control programmes (…) should be designed and implemented by States in accordance with their human rights obligations’, and commits all UN agencies, including UNODC, to support drug policies ‘that put people, health, and human rights at the centre’.

Similar human rights concerns have been highlighted in the just-released Global Drug Policy Index, which measures and ranks the national drug policies of 30 countries according to how well they align with the UN system Common Position on Drugs and its Task Team report of March 2019.

The theme of the 2021 International Human Rights Day is ‘Equality: Reducing inequalities, advancing human rights’, and is aimed at ´addressing and finding solutions for deep-rooted forms of discrimination that have affected the most vulnerable people in societies´. As such, it presents a crucial opportunity for UNODC to align itself with other UN entities in calling for the end of policies that perpetuate inequality and discrimination, while highlighting its commitment to the promotion of human rights, in line with the UN system Common Positions.

It is in this context that we urge you to issue a strong statement on International Human Rights Day, calling on states to change the drug laws, policies and practices that violate health and human rights, and entrench inequality. To be credible, such a statement should explicitly acknowledge the disproportionate impact of drug laws and drug control on people marginalised on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity, and economic status, and urge Member States to:

  1. Abolish the death penalty in all circumstances. Imposing capital punishment for drug offences has been found to be contrary to international human rights law by the Human Rights Committee, and the Human Rights Council.
  2. Put an immediate end to extrajudicial killings committed in the name of drug control, as has been repeatedly called for by the Human Rights Council and UN human rights experts.
  3. Permanently close compulsory drug detention centres, including those that masquerade as ‘rehabilitation’, and implement voluntary, evidence-informed, and rights-based health and social services, as recently called for by sixteen UN agencies, including UNODC.
  4. Stress the urgent need to provide accessible, affordable, and adequately funded harm reduction services in community and closed settings, to fulfil the right to health and the right to life of people who use drugs, as demanded by several UN human rights bodies and experts. This is also central to UNODC’s core role as lead UNAIDS co-sponsor regarding prisons and HIV amongst people who use drugs.
  5. Take immediate measures to address prison overcrowding, as already recommended by UNODC and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, by promoting alternatives to incarceration, and ensuring proportionate sentencing for all drug offences, including by taking into account mitigating factors – in line with the basic principle that prisons should only be used as a last resort in all circumstances.
  6. Ensure that people who use drugs are not subject to arbitrary detention, torture, or ill-treatment – whether in state custody or public or private drug services. While under detention, people with a drug dependence or health problems associated with their drug use must be offered evidence-based treatment, harm reduction and other drug services on a strictly voluntary basis.
  7. Promote the end of all punishment for drug use, and drug possession and cultivation for personal use, as permitted within the three drug control conventions. Such policy shifts will help to end the stigma, criminalisation, and exclusion faced by people who use drugs, and to facilitate access to health and social services, as called for by the UN system Common Position, UNAIDS, and UN human rights bodies.
  8. Make sure that drug policies incorporate a gender-sensitive perspective. This should be done by tailoring drug services to the specific needs of women, and by ensuring that criminal laws take into account the circumstances of women involved in drug offences, as most of them come from backgrounds of poverty, marginalisation, and oppression.
  9. Clearly outline the ways in which UNODC will work to achieve these changes, and the measures being taken to ensure that human rights are effectively embedded as a core strand for all of the Office’s work.

As the lead UN agency in drug-related matters, UNODC has the responsibility to promote drug policies that respect, protect, and fulfil human rights, in a way that is consistent with the standards developed by the UN system, and in line with the commitments set in the UN system Common Positions on drugs and on incarceration. A strong statement in the forthcoming International Human Rights Day would be an important and welcome step to signal UNODC’s unequivocal commitment.

We look forward to discussing these concerns and recommendations with you.


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