The intersections between drug policy and human rights are many. Human rights abuses resulting from drug control are now well documented all over the world, and include: 

  • The violation of the right to life with the use of the death penalty or extrajudicial killings for drug offences.
  • The violation of the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment with the arbitrary detention of people who use drugs and abuses taking place in compulsory detention centres.
  • The violation of the right to health, linked to restricted access to essential medicines, including methadone to treat drug dependence and medication for pain relief.
  • The violation of social and economic rights, with the implementation of forced crop eradication campaigns.
  • The violation of the right to freedom from discrimination, with discriminatory drug law enforcement towards ethnic minorities, indigenous groups, young people and women.

Aerial spraying in Colombia

In 2008, the UN General Assembly declared: “Countering the world drug problem... must be carried out in full conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and other provisions of international law, and in particular with full respect for... all human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Prison overcrowding in the USA

Despite this statement, there has traditionally been a striking lack of coherence within the United Nations regarding the interrelation between human rights and drug policy. While UN drug control bodies have tended to ignore human rights principles in their efforts to achieve a “drug-free society”, human rights agencies have paid little attention to drug policy issues. The situation is slowly improving, as UN human rights agencies, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, are now to call on governments not to jeopardise human rights in the name of drug control. The UN drug control agencies, however, are still reluctant to include the dimension of human rights in their policies and programmes.

IDPC calls for a shift in drug policy, which needs to recognise human rights law as a core element of drug control, focusing on:

  • Improving public health to ensure adequate access to essential medicines and develop evidence-based harm reduction, prevention, treatment and care programmes.
  • Promoting development to provide alternative livelihoods, reduce poverty, and offer opportunities for education, employment and social security.
  • Ensuring human security so that law enforcement efforts are targeted at those most harmful and violent aspects of the drug market, rather than low-level, non-violent dealers, users and vulnerable farming communities.

Compulsory detention centre in China

While most human rights treaties are relevant to drug policy in some way, very few specifically refer to drugs. In fact, the application of human rights law to drug policy and the consideration of drug control as a thematic area of human rights concern are relatively recent developments. Traditionally, these branches of law and policy have been considered practically detached from each other, leading the former UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Health, Professor Paul Hunt, to describe them as “parallel universes”.

The international human rights system is constituted of the following human rights bodies:

  • The Human Rights Council: Established in 2006 to replace the Commission on Human Rights, it is the main political human rights body within the UN. The Council meets for at least three weeks, three times a year and reports to the General Assembly. The Council also conducts the Universal Periodic Review system, whereby each UN member state must report to other states on how it has implemented its human rights obligations.
  • The Special Procedures: The Human Rights Council can establish independent expert bodies or individuals with either a country specific or a thematic mandate. These include the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, etc.
  • The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: a sister department to UNODC within the UN Secretariat, responsible for both assisting countries with the implementation of their human rights obligations and for mainstreaming human rights within the UN system.
  • Human rights treaty bodies: these are independent committees established under each UN human rights treaty to oversee their implementation and assist in the interpretation of their provisions.