OHCHR statement at high level side event on a human rights approach to drug policy

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OHCHR statement at high level side event on a human rights approach to drug policy

1 March 2023
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

Distinguished colleagues,

Recent decades have seen the adoption of three conventions on drug policy and numerous commitments to make drug policy comply with human rights.

Despite this progress, many States continue to pursue drug policies that fail to live up to the core tenants of international human rights law.

While at least 30 countries and 50 territories have decriminalised drug usage, 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated have been convicted of drug-related offences, demonstrating that criminalization is still the worldwide norm.

Indeed, the current approach in most of the world continues to be of mass incarceration of people who use drugs, often with long sentences and lack of due process.

At the extreme, 35 countries maintain the death penalty for drug-related offences, in violation of international human rights law. I call on States that maintain the death penalty to abolish it, including for drug-related offences.


Harsh and punitive drug control measures, based on the unrealistic notion of a “drug free world”, hinder access to health treatment and harm reduction services, and they contribute to 1.2 million unnecessary drug-related deaths per year. It also creates stigma and exacerbates discrimination.

Women continue to be incarcerated at a higher rate than men for drug offences, often as a result of the patterns of discrimination and inequality in society, including the lack of job opportunities for many women.
People of African descent are often targeted in drug operations and are disproportionately denied access to treatment for dependency.

Traditional medical and cultural practices of indigenous peoples are often criminalized where they involve controlled substances. This is contrary to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

States must come together to end such practices and adapt their drug policies to address the specific needs of women, children and youth, and people in vulnerable situations, such as minorities, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQI+ people.

In parallel, I encourage States to take concrete steps towards ensuring access to controlled medicines for everyone. In spite of the fact that international drug conventions recognise that the medical use of narcotic drugs is indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering, millions of people, primarily in the global south, do not have such access. This is often due to drug policies that are excessively restrictive for fear of diversion for illicit use.


This year’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an opportunity to reflect on how to reform drug policies in line with the spirit of human rights.

I encourage the Human Rights Council and Human Rights Mechanisms to continue and strengthen their engagement in drug policy debates, particularly as we prepare for the 2024 mid-term review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on joint commitments to address and counter the world drug problem. In this regard, I welcome the initiative of some Member States to submit a new resolution on drug policy and human rights at this session of the Council.

Instead of the war on drugs, States should adopt drug policies anchored in evidence, human rights approaches and public health prerogatives, which can tackle the needs of the 21st century.

My office stands ready to support States, civil society and other stakeholders in this endeavour, towards ensuring that human dignity, fully compatible with the rule of law, remains at the center.

I wish you success in these efforts.

Thank you.