Side event: The nexus between drug control and human rights

Organised by the Government of Norway and the Council of Europe 

Bent Høie, Minister of Health, Norway. Human rights are reflected in the outcome document but not sufficiently. Human rights are universal regardless of colour and status in society. We promote the rights of all members of society to participate in society. This serves also coloured people who suffer from the harms of drug abuse, those seeking access to controlled medicines for pain relief and palliative care. We have documentation on the serious human rights gaps: lack access to essential medicines causes suffering from all around. We need more focus on the health needs of people. It is unacceptable that people suffering from HIV do not have access to services. Those suffering from drug dependence become victims of human rights. Dealing with this requires a cross-sectoral approach. Equally important is the need to change the mind-set of people on drug dependence. Member states need to adopt a human rights based approach. Preparations for this important summit were inclusive with close cooperation with the UN in Vienna, New York and Geneva. I want to highlight the importance of civil society. This inclusive approach should continue in the lead up to 2019. We must continue to focus on access to healthcare and the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences. As President of the Pompidou Group, Norway has initiated a policy paper on human rights and drug policy. A successful approach to drug policy needs to take into account the SDGs, including gender equality and justice.

Ivan Simonovic, UN Assistant-Secretary-General for Human Rights, Human Rights Office. The Human Rights Office has always tried to take into account the drug issue as a human rights issue. We must change the way drug related offences are dealt with. The UNGASS outcome document promotes flexibility, but it should not be regarded as disregarding international human rights law. There are reports on the human rights impacts of drug control. Drug control affects human rights such as extrajudicial killings committed with impunity, arbitrary detention (automatic pre-trial detention for drug offenders), violence to extract confessions on other drug users and traffickers, disproportionate sentencing for drug use and low-level offences. Imprisonment can affect access to jobs and health and social services. Some are trialled by special courts that don’t respond to human rights standards. In 1979, 10 countries had the death penalty for drug offences. Now we have 33 such countries. This is against the international covenant on civil and political rights. There is no evidence that the death penalty deters any crime. The INCB has called on retentionist states to abolish the death penalty for drug offences. It is disappointing that states decided not to make this call on the outcome document. We must put individuals at the centre of our international drug policies. We need a human rights based approach for how we treat drug offenders. They should be treated as people with need. I support the decriminalisation of people who use drugs. The evidence-based approach of medical professionals dealing with drug issues convinced us all. Criminalisation is a key impediment to the right to health – people fear arrest, imprisonment or treatment against their will. Decriminalisation does not mean endorsement of the use of drugs. We need to follow examples of countries such as Portugal. Experience has shown that this does not lead to increases in drug use. We also need a harm reduction approach. This is supported by many UN agencies worldwide. OST and NSPs are available in about half countries worldwide. In the outcome document, there is no ref per se of harm reduction or the right to health. These omissions are regrettable but should not prevent us from advancing towards a human rights based approach. Let me highlight also the disproportionate impact of ethnic minorities, children and women. Women pay a high price for drug use, they are condemned for high risk low level crimes.  Children who use drugs are criminalised and have no access to harm reduction services. The outcome document does not address the many human rights concerns raised by the Human Rights Office – there is still a long way to go.

 Jan Malinowski, Executive Secretary, Council of Europe’s Pompidou Group. It is a great opportunity to discuss human rights with you in the context of human rights. I will take a different approach. I want to do several things – refer to a statement issued yesterday by the SG of the Council of Europe, I want to subscribe to this statement on the human rights dimensions of drug policy. I invite you to visit our website to read these conclusions. Most importantly, I want to link everything together. When we talk about governance, we talk about many things that we have to bring together. The Pompidou Group is a platform for drug policy. It is a longstanding organisation set up in the 1970s. It is a human rights organisation, promoting democracy and the rule of law. We have 47 member states. We serve 820 million people in terms of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. We suggested 3 principles for member states at UNGASS: open debate – being candid on what we know about drugs – and take into account the consequences including the transmission of diseases, trafficking and exploitation, terrorism, all these issues that undermine the rule of law, the amount of people incarcerated because of drugs. There is much suffering that is avoidable. This raises human rights issues. He put emphasis on the right to health. Human rights are not a choice for states, it is a legal obligation. This means also that this should be done for drugs. Inhuman and degrading treatment is a human rights issue for drug users. All these things happen day by day. The third parameter the SG signalled is that the UNGASS should pave the way to drug policy reform, including alternatives to incarceration for minor drug offences, prevention, education, harm reduction. We must make sure that human rights are respected – if drug policy is not capable of preserving life from death that is preventable then it is a human rights issue. It’s not enough to pay service to human rights. The excuse of due obedience is not acceptable for law enforcement, or any agent of the state. Due obedience does not exist in respect of crimes against humanity. In human rights terms, the way these have been articulated is that member states have human rights obligations and have to facilitate the enjoyment of human rights. We know what works in that regard. Supporting is more effective than punishing. We know all these things for decades. Research in the 1960s already stated this. The Lancet John Hopkins University said this too. So there is no excuse now. We also know it from the most important people around – the users. We should listen to them. Drug policy today does not work. We must change. We cannot ignore the evidence of what works and what doesn’t.

Luciana Pol, Senior Fellow, CELS. CELS compiles the human rights problems we identify in Latin America, we held a thematic hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2014. It was the first time this topic was addressed as a human rights issue. I will go through different aspects of human rights issues in the region. CELS and many other organisations didn’t have a specific interest in drugs issues. We happened to find very problematic situations where drug laws and the criminal justice system was affecting people’s human rights. It is important to highlight the fact that drug policies in Latin America are framed in the field of security. Here Norway is represented by the Min of Health, whereas a lot of Latin American countries are represented by the Ministry of Security. The first thing that appeared within the ICHR was important to highlight the impact of drug control on many vulnerable communities. One of the main focuses of the international drug control system was to eliminate production. Law enforcement has focused mostly on producer and transit countries. But with all those efforts, the state response has failed in reducing supply, it has resulted in a relocation of the problem. It is dynamic where the violence is located. Many communities would be affected sooner or later by the issue. The living conditions of producing areas are difficult, especially where eradication campaigns are taking place. At the same time, there are efforts to reduce drug demand. But following the drug conventions, even the private use of drugs is considered as a crime. There are reports that the high commissioner of human rights has published showing that criminalisation of use has resulted in barriers for access to care and support. The criminal justice system mostly concentrates on small actors in the illicit drug trade. There are more and more severe sanctions, higher rates of incarceration. The criminal justice system is now in crisis. Between 2001-2010 8 million people were detained for cannabis, the majority of whom for simple possession. We also have higher sentences for people involved in drug trafficking than for murder and rape in some countries. We now have a disproportionate relation between drugs and crime. When we analyse the criminal justice consequences in prison, we need to highlight the issue of women in prison. We were conducting research on violence against women in prison. And when we visited Argentinian prisons entirely populated by micro-traffickers. They were half Bolivian half Argentinians, very poor, had several kids and sole caretakers. Their detention had important consequences on the lives of their children. Bolivian women didn’t even know where their kids were. The amount of women imprisoned for drug offences has multiplied in a terrifying way. In Brazil, in 2000 they had 5,600 women, now they have 37,000. If you look at statistics of some countries there is a similar pattern. This has brought the attention of many other organisations which didn’t work on this issue before. If we compare with the situation 5 years ago, the human rights multilateral mechanisms have improved a lot. I hope that the UNGASS process opens the door to policy reform.

Ivan Simonovic. I don’t understand why we don’t have an explicit mention of harm reduction in the outcome document, as well as the right to health. Whether a person uses drugs should not undermine his/her right to health.

Luciana Pol. If we look around, there are alternatives that exist and are already in place. There are many experiences that could be used and implemented. We need a policy that is not repressive but based on responding to the needs of vulnerable groups. There is also a big disconnect between what is happening here and what is going on in the field – we need a true and honest debate both here and back home. We must set some goals, which should be part of the discussion at the international forum. It’s time to get together and get evidence-based debate on these alternative options.

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