Side event: Human rights and the world drug problem

The event is organized by the Government of Uruguay with the support of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES).  The objective is to realize a side event in the context of UNGASS 2016 to continue the campaign to promote the inclusion of the human rights perspective in the debate on the world drug problem, given that the facts have demonstrated that national drug treatment policies directly impact the enjoyment of individual human rights, especially the right to health. 

Milton Romani gave opening remarks.

Moderator: We are here to continue conversation on this topic of human rights because it is important. I thank Uruguay government for organizing this with us.

Robert Husbands: OHCHR introduced its report in 2015 pursuant to request by Human Rights Council. It addresses human rights relating to world drug problem in 5 areas: right to health.

Regarding right to health, harm reduction was acknowledged in resolutions in 2009 which recognize it as essential component to right to health. But availability of NSP is in less than 25% of countries. Access to controlled medicines is far too limited. By restricting access to opiate medication, it restricts their availability for OST and other legitimate health needs. This brings me too decriminalization. OHCHR, WHO and UNAIDS also support decriminalization on health grounds. In states where drug use is criminalized, people who use drugs are less likely to seek healthcare for fear of arrest. Criminalisation has also resulted in risky drug use practices. Some states also criminalise sharing information pertaining to safe use of drugs or harm reduction. For this reason, we call for decriminalization of possession for personal use.

On the death penalty, it doesn’t matter that not all retentionist states do not actively execute. Drug offences do not constitute most serious crime under international law, and should not be imposed.

In some states, people arrested for drug use-related offences are arbitrarily detained, and may be subject to torture to extract confessions and information relating to criminal networks. They may also be denied access to OST, which can constitute torture.

There are also extra-judicial killings and killing with impunity, and should be subject to investigation.

A criminal conviction can affect range of rights. A criminal conviction for low-level drug offence can have greater impact on a person’s life than occasional drug use, as said by Kofi Annan.

The OHCHR also calls for the disproportionate effects of drug laws on ethnic minorities and women to be address.

Children should also receive objective information about drugs, and not subject to criminal conviction. Instead they should be offered treatment.

On rights of indigenous people, they should have right to pursue their indigenous practices. Where they include drug use, that should be permitted.

In concluding, a state’s response to drug use is more humane and effective when focused on health and human rights.

Javier Sagredo, UNDP: Thanks for allowing UNDP this meeting in timely manner. We are asked to question the way the conventions are working and how the implementation in practice is working out. The policies that are traditionally followed related to fear of crime and sickness that continue to be the paradigm in society’s thinking. Policies reflect people’s fear and what comes out of that framework has excluded sometimes people who engage in drug-related activities. What are the limits of public policy and any intervention to prevent throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

We have to look at ourselves, at inequality and the countries that consider drug use a criminal offence has seen brutal impact on those affected, especially women and children. I work in the bureau of Latin Am and Caribbean of UNDP. We see problems with overcrowded prisons and lack of treatment facilities, or where there are they are expensive for people to be able to afford. We need to ask ourselves where are our neighbours, can we work together to create spaces to help people, to develop policies that work in the long run and not just for political convenience?

There are those who have suffered from eradication practices and joined criminal activities. We hear of problems with armed forced and organized crime. It is because so many people have joined them because of problems relating to drug policies. Formal decriminalization can help. The states have allowed very little innovation. The debate is about the need of the drug agenda to include elements that can improve the health and well being of people. The impacts that have been documented in a UNDP publication, have a huge impact of human development, eg. in terms of poverty, sustainable economy, environment, indigenous people. We have articulated this in the publication. Drug policies are the best example of ill-oriented policies, if you come to think of poverty eradication and economic growth. These are same policies that cause problems to poor people. We will prepare a new report on human development in future years, with multi-dimensional perspective. We want to see development from a pluralist perspective.

Now there is a situation that has eroded goals of poverty eradication. That’s why we want to give it renewed momentum. We see many Latin American countries are questioning negative impacts for development and we want to seize this momentum during this UNGASS. Drugs only appears once in the Sustainable Development Goals but we want to work with member states to see how drug policies are having an impact on the 2030 agenda and how they will impact countries in their goals for sustainable development. We at UNDP are conceiving an innovation platform for human development and we want to make it available to the international community. We want to do research on links between drugs and sustainable development.

Dr Penila, Urguay: what did we expect from UNGASS? We have been working for a long time on this since the General Assembly approved the resolution in 2012. It has not always been possible to debate this openly. We have always known that the UNGASS is not enough, it is not a show off of brave decisions of countries such as Uruguay. But we know it is a preparatory gathering because it has made many stakeholders such as UNASUR to start thinking what it means to take a step forward in their struggle against drugs. We have done a lot on this in terms of incorporation in drug policies. At national level we cannot agree more that no policy can undermine the agenda on 2030 and the SDGs. We do know that we want to enlarge the possibilities and opportunities and that is important.

We have questioned ourselves from human rights perspective. If I deal with implementation, we deal with national institutions on human rights, we deal with certain measures that must be applied. The death penalty does not exist, has never existed in Uruguay. The use and possession of drugs is not penalized, but then we have this contradiction between use, possession and trade. We need to do everything respecting human rights.

When it comes to justice administration, the presumption of innocence has been completely ignored. If I criminalise consumption, trade and trafficking, this is very hard to apply, and leads to high rates of incarceration. People imprisoned also have human rights and they must be respected. Bolivia and Peru have this situation. How are we going to go against beliefs and culture and tradition due to consensus that has not worked out in past 18 years? The drug policy approach started off as a strategic question but then became a tactical question. The fact of talking about human rights in the UNGASS is to go back to the very roots of the conventions. We need to talk about the improvement of our citizens consistent with human rights.

In Uruguay we are not afraid of changing policies if they could work better, we need to assess all the negative impacts of prohibition. We want to change paradigms. We need to do much more.

Question from Parliamentary member of Israel: for Uruguay, how has your policy change aligned with public opinion? We see how the progressive policies get applause from the audience but many governments are much more conservative.

Response from Dr Penila, Uruguay: civil society in Uruguay has been organized, and if we want to talk to civil society, we can talk to them, eg. cannabis social clubs. Tobacco and alcohol and cannabis has been an obsession of previous governments, eg. we banned advertising of tobacco. We were criticized for slow implementation of the legally regulated market for cannabis. Uruguay is not inflexible, and concerned with evaluating policy but first we have to implement it, hopefully in 2016. The unique character of Uruguay is that it is the state that is taking the lead. Civil society wanted it for a long time and government wants it too.

Question from National Hemp Association of South Africa: We try to focus on alternative development: how are we going to guarantee human rights of spiritual and indigenous groups, eg. those who have grown it for thousands of years and now government is going to allow pharmaceutical companies to grow them?

Response from Javier Sagredo: we need to remember the indigenous movements etc. There are also countries such as Bolivia that have shown they have constitutional laws and cultural and indigenous rights. There has been some innovation in public policies elsewhere too, eg. Jamaica. There is some light at the end of the tunnel. In terms of crops, many countries have related this to structural elements. It relates to giving citizens their rights. Some countries are putting drug issues under 2030 agenda, and all countries have signed them, giving rise to opportunities fror change under this.

Question from Molly Meacher, UK: how many countries are you aware of who are willing to do what you have done, eg. I’m aware Italy has which is wonderful?

Question from Growers of Kith and Cannabis, Morocco: we have thousands of years of history with this. I don’t have a question but want to say something for someone. The growers in my area already know there is no hope that these laws that have been imposed to us due to the 1961 convention and that are still going on today, will change. Because those that grow are poor and live at survival level. Those who profit from this are rich. We have to count on ourselves and ask the government if they can change the law. We are asking for a revolution.

Milton Romani: Don’t give up, we will go forward.

Question from journalist from Amsterdam: How does Uruguay see the way forward in terms of the convention, will they work with other governments such Canada or even the US to seek reform?

Question from Canadian SSDP: I love what you are doing, but it appears events like UNGASS are very slow in moving towards reform, how can we accelerate that?

Milton Romani: That is an existential question.

Question from US: I appreciate point made by Robert Husbands about extra-judicial killings, where are the mechanisms that you see apart from normal human rights bodies that will address this as a drug policy issue?

Question from Diane from Peru: we are a non-profit, organizing coca leaf forums in Andean region to show we can make a legal market. I appreciate what Uruguay is doing. We expect our government will hear us soon.

Response from Milton Romani, Uruguay: How many countries will follow us, I don’t know. I know that US, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica have made some changes. Different paths have led to this development. However regulating the market is one aspect Uruguay is dealing with. Which country will follow in abolishing the death penalty? Regulating cannabis is important but the aspects of respecting rights is important because communities have the right to organize, to regulate psychoactive substances. How can we make the process go faster? I don’t know. For many years, we have been coming here. It is has had bad effects to keep hearing these things over and over again. In Vienna, some countries say that here we talk about drugs, if you want to talk about human rights go to Geneva. But here it is different. Sometimes things move slowly but maybe that’s why I say to my friend from Morocco, stay with us, we might make it. On the question from the journalist from Amsterdam, the conventions were drafted to be respected, that is true. I’m going to use an argument that belongs to Francisco Thoumi, that the conventions also need to be clear. My friend Thoumi says that when it comes to medical and scientific use of drugs, are we also talking about social sciences, because if so, it may be in compliance with the conventions. The international community has to revise the conventions and the most important thing is to maintain this debate amongst member states, and academic. We need to engage political parties, parliament in this debate, that enables us to hold these meetings. A few years ago a meeting like this one might not be possible. So there is progress maybe slowly, but on a continuous basis. Uruguay made the decision on regulation because of its constitution and situation. Lastly I wish to show you this poster on human rights, ‘People who use drugs do not lose their human rights,’ from Robert Husbands.

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