The United Nations calls for the protection of traditional knowledge

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The United Nations calls for the protection of traditional knowledge

14 June 2024

A recent report by Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, titled Drug Use, Harm Reduction and the Right to Health provides a thorough analysis of human rights protection within drug policy and emphasizes the preservation of Traditional Indigenous Medicines. The report offers extensive recommendations with far-reaching implications for public health policy and the rights of historically marginalized communities.

Key Recommendations

The report highlights several important recommendations, including responsible regulation and decriminalization of ancestral medicine practices. The proposals and their potential implications are as follows:

  • Responsible regulation: Move towards responsible regulatory frameworks and advocate for legal regulations of species and substances controlled by international conventions. This approach aims to reduce the harms associated with the unregulated market and ensure safe and controlled access.
  • Eliminating discriminatory practices: End discriminatory practices and requirements that impede access to health services. This recommendation is crucial to ensure that all people, regardless of their origin or socioeconomic status, can access the care they need without bureaucratic barriers that hinder their right to life.
  • Care for marginalized groups: Consider the specific needs of marginalized populations. Recognizing and addressing these needs can make the difference between an inclusive public health policy and one that perpetuates exclusion and inequality.
  • Peer-led initiatives: Politically support and continuously fund peer-led initiatives that are essential to harm reduction. These initiatives are based on the lived experience of the individuals involved and offer more effective and empathetic approaches to prevention and treatment.
  • Review of oppressive laws: Ensure that laws do not perpetuate various kinds of oppression, such as racism and colonialism. This includes the need to review and reform legislation that criminalizes plant medicine practices and disproportionately affects marginalized communities.
  • Decriminalizing drug use: Decriminalize the use, possession, purchase, and cultivation of substances for personal consumption. Criminalization of personal use has proven ineffective and harmful. It also perpetuates stigma and maintains barriers to healthcare access.
  • International legal framework: Revise the international legal framework on drug control to reflect human rights and public health perspectives, rather than those based on repression and punishment.

Relevance in the Globalization of Traditional Indigenous Medicines

The document starts off with a revealing statement, “Drugs have been a part of human history for thousands of years, whether for medicinal healing, religious and cultural ceremonies or as commodities for pleasure.” This opening line highlights the importance and diversity of the relationship with these substances over time and recognizes their role in traditional medicine, spirituality, and the search for pleasurable experiences. Among the Rapporteur’s suggestions, one stands out in particular for its relevance to advocacy work regarding traditional practices. The conclusions and recommendations section stipulates the following:

“On the basis of the principles of equality and non-discrimination, transparency, participation and accountability, the Special Rapporteur recommends that States:

[…] Recognize the cultural and medicinal uses of plants and flora for their rich diversity beyond western medical paradigms by protecting the rights of Black people, Indigenous Peoples and people of African descent to grow, access and use such plants and flora without extraction and depletion by industries […].”

This recommendation emphasizes the importance of protecting the rights of Indigenous communities to continue practicing their traditions without exploitation and depletion by large corporations. As a result, it is deeply aligned with the mission to integrate traditional medicines into society and preserve the cultures that cherish them.

The recognition by the United Nations of traditional plant medicine practices beyond Western medical paradigms opens a vital space for integrating ancestral knowledge into the societies of the Global North. Furthermore, it protects the right of these communities to cultivate and work with their plants to ensure the continuity of practices that are fundamental to preserving their identity. This in turn can create greater community cohesion and enhance well-being.

In addition, the recommendation to prevent the extraction and depletion of resources by large corporations directly addresses the power dynamics that often lead to the exploitation and dispossession of local communities’ natural resources. This approach promotes a more equitable and sustainable vision for development that respects the sovereignty of communities and their resources and territories. All of this is within the framework of the right to enjoy the highest possible level of physical and mental health.

Significant Progress

The Special Rapporteur’s report represents a significant advance in the recognition of the cultural and medicinal rights of plant medicine. According to Dr. Constanza Sánchez Avilés, Director of Law, Policy and Human Rights at ICEERS, “These recommendations reinforce our commitment to protecting ethnobotanical practices and defending the rights of Indigenous communities, as well as much of the litigation work we have been doing to defend Indigenous people who travel with their traditional medicines.”

“We will continue to work to integrate these practices into society in a fair and sustainable way, ensuring that global policies reflect and respect the richness and diversity of cultural traditions,” Constanza added.

ICEERS’ work focuses on developing a deeper understanding and greater acceptance of Traditional Indigenous Medicines. Our mission also advocates for policies that promote social justice and respect cultural diversity. This report by the United Nations not only validates our ongoing educational and community service efforts, but also provides a solid framework to continue advancing our mission.