Release and Harm Reduction International's submission to the OHCHR on human rights and the policing of African people and people of African descent

HRI and Release


Release and Harm Reduction International's submission to the OHCHR on human rights and the policing of African people and people of African descent

1 July 2021
Harm Reduction International (HRI)

Around the world, drug law enforcement disproportionately targets people of African descent, with heightened negative social, economic, health, and legal impacts. Research on different countries consistently shows that Black people are systematically discriminated against in all stages of the criminal justice process, being disproportionately policed, arrested, harshly sentenced, and incarcerated for drug offences. This has distinct repercussions not only on their liberty, but also on their health, and on the health and safety of their communities. The disparity is such that drug policy has been described as a “key mechanism for racial and social control within society”. Far from being unintended consequences, drug control is in fact being employed “to justify excessive surveillance, criminalization and the targeting of people of African descent worldwide."

That drug control works to criminalise and dehumanise certain individuals more than others also emerged in the case of George Floyd, where the presence of ‘potential intoxicants in his system’ was reported as a potential reason for his death, in an attempt to deflect from the responsibilities of police officers who ended Mr. Floyd’s life.

In March 2019, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent stated that: “Enduring and entrenched racial disparities in the criminal justice system – as well as ongoing tolerance of race-based outcomes in policing, entrenched racial disparities, and ongoing selective enforcement of the law – reflect harmful stereotypes grounded in the historical legacies of the global trafficking in enslaved Africans, colonisation, and the ways in which modern social narratives evolved from rhetoric designed to justify these institutions and the exploitation of people of African descent.”

Similarly, in its 2015 study on the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has acknowledged that ethnic minorities “may be particularly subject to discrimination in the context of drug enforcement efforts.”

This report focuses on racism and discrimination against people of African descent in drug law enforcement. A detailed reconstruction and in-depth analysis of the racial undertones of drug control laws, their enforcement, and their impacts on people of African descent around the world goes well beyond the scope and space of this report. As such, this submission merely provides some (among many) examples from the USA, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil, on policing, arrest, sentencing and incarceration of people of African descent for drug offences; and comments on some social and health impacts of this phenomenon, whilst referring to more detailed sources.