Drug policies will be more effective with a human rights approach, UN Human Rights Chief says

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Drug policies will be more effective with a human rights approach, UN Human Rights Chief says

23 November 2023
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

Statement delivered by Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 8th Brandenburg Forum on Drugs and Development Policies, organised by the Global Partnership on Drug Policies and Development (GPDPD) (commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development - BMZ, and implemented under political patronage of the Commissioner of the Federal Government for Drug and Addiction Policy) and co-hosted by the Government of the Netherlands, the Norwegian Ministry of Health and Care Services, the Transnational Institute (TNI), and the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

Dear colleagues,

From deaths and ruined lives to violent crime and mass incarceration, the toll of the global trade in illegal narcotics is unbearable. Drug use has taken many lives.

But so have poorly constructed drug control policies.

Punishing people who use drugs with jail and criminal records adds to their suffering. It results in stigma and social exclusion; makes it more difficult for drug users to function in the legal economy; and drives them deeper underground – beyond the reach of help.

Criminalisation also drives drug markets underground, where they may connect with networks trading arms and trafficking people. This fuels far greater criminality.

My Office recently issued a report on human rights challenges related to the world drug problem. It found that the persistence of compulsory or coercive treatment creates serious challenges to human dignity and contradicts international human rights standards.

The report also found that punitive drug control laws and law enforcement practices are among the main obstacles preventing people from entering drug treatment programmes when they need to. In 2021, only one in five people suffering from drug-related disorders was in treatment for drug use globally, with huge disparities in access to treatment around the world.

Criminalization and the so called ‘war on drugs’ approach have failed to curb drug use. And they have not deterred drug-related crime. Instead, the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has militarized drug control efforts, with sharply escalating use of lethal force in drug-related law enforcement in several countries – alongside evidence of multiple and serious human rights violations in some cases. These range from unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, to arbitrary detentions and even extrajudicial killings.

The so called ‘war on drugs’ has been accompanied by increasing use of the death penalty for drug-related convictions worldwide, contrary to international human rights law. The recorded number of people executed for drug-related offences more than doubled in 2022 compared to 2021 – and this does not include countries which keep the number of people whom they execute a secret.

Criminalisation has also driven exponential growth of prison populations – disproportionately people from minority communities, and young people from poor backgrounds.

Morally and practically, as our report demonstrated, the ‘war on drugs’ approach has failed. The world drug situation remains very concerning, but treating people who use drugs as criminals is not the solution.

The report's recommendations aim to inspire action in view of next year's midterm review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on persistent and emerging challenges related to the world drug problem.

That mid-term review is a key moment. As we look back, to take stock of results to date, we will also be looking forward – planning what needs to be covered by 2029, and how that can be done. It is also an occasion for States to renew the Ministerial Declaration's strong commitment to human rights, as part of transformative change to address the global drug situation.

At the core of addiction is often the gnawing feeling that one’s life is unbearable. We need to address the underlying social and economic factors of ever increased drug use, by tackling social inequalities, and promoting social justice.

We need measures that can take control of illegal drug markets, such as responsible regulation that can eliminate profits from illegal trafficking, criminality and violence.

We need inclusive policies that ensure access to medical care and to harm reduction services, with measures that address the specific needs of women. All forms of treatment for drug use disorder must be voluntary, and discrimination by law enforcement against people of African descent, Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized populations must be ended.

I also strongly encourage all authorities to engage with people who use drugs, and affected communities, to ensure that drug policies are based on evidence, and that they are properly implemented to improve the lives of the millions of people who are affected.

The Brandenburg Forum is a leading force in the global movement to ensure that drug policies promote more effective solutions, by focusing on people and their rights.

I applaud your initiatives to advance cross-national dialogue focusing on public health; on human rights; and on inclusive and sustainable development – in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an ambitious, detailed and very necessary human rights-based commitment.

Several countries have begun to approach drug usage as a public health and human rights issue – applying evidence-based and gender-sensitive harm reduction approaches, and decriminalizing the use of some drugs.

Together, we can work to encourage all countries to take decisive steps in this direction, by ensuring that their drug policies focus on support – not coercion and fear.

Thank you.