Home » Side event: Human rights and drugs: what have we learned and where are we heading?

Side event: Human rights and drugs: what have we learned and where are we heading?

Organised by Czechia with the support of Colombia, Ghana, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Global Commission on Drug Policy and the International Drug Policy Consortium

Katerina Horackova, Czechia. Thank you all for being here and thanks to all our cosponsors. I want to show you the conference room paper prepared by Czechia in cooperation with civil society, you can find printed versions close to the door and it’s available online. I ask all speakers to only speak for maximum 3 minutes so that we have enough time for discussions. I ask you all to touch on what is the biggest challenge for human rights from your perspective, barriers for implementing evidence-based drug policies, gender issues and the rights of women, and the issue of negative consequences of prohibition. I now pass the floor to Mr. Jondrich Voboril.

Jindrich Voboril, National Drugs Coordinator, Czechia. Let’s try to be as interactive as possible. Do you know the game true or false? Please raise your hands. The drug conventions assume that we can reach a full abstinence society – true or false? Possession of drugs for personal use must be illegal according to 1961 convention – true or false? Some of you read the INCB report! Penalising people for possession of drugs, when they are diagnosed with addiction disorders, is against international human rights law – true or false? When the conventions were drafted, they agreed to eliminate certain drugs by banning them. Because of that, we put millions of people in prisons, we executed hundreds of thousands of people since then. We denied treatment, we labelled people as antisocial because they use drugs. We know that certain behaviour in our penal systems can go so far as to obstructing people from basic rights such as the right to life or right to liberty. I want to finish with a remark: we have the option of continuing with an abstinence based policy of drug free world, or an option of policy focusing on minimising the harms and risks, forgetting the push and promise of a world free of drugs. We should consider if it’s the right time to change the situation.

Saved Mahmood, OHCHR. I want to mention one thing: it’s interesting to be back in the community, and meeting people in person. It’s changed the dynamics. In 2016, we produced a poster: people who use drugs do not lose their human rights. But we still ahem to do more work. The death penalty is one of these issues. Most countries also continue to criminalise. human rights, rights of indigenous people, etc. We have achieved very little. We are making the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We should look at the measures we are taking and how far we are going with that. During the last 6 decades, numerous commitments have been made to respect human rights in drug control efforts. This is included in the 2016 UNGASS OD, the 2019 Ministerial Declaration. Last year, the UNGA Resolution also did that, and moved away from the drug-free world. These are the good momentums that were created. How can we move away from human rights violations? The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has highlighted this. We have opportunities to change the discourse. In 2024, there will be an opportunity to contribute and reevaluate what we have achieved with regards to human rights in drug policy and what can be done. Tomorrow, there will be an informal at the Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution for the OHCHR to publish a report on human rights and drug policy for 2024. This is giving us the opportunity to highlight the situation and define the way forward. We need to connect the dots between Geneva and Vienna, as well as with New York. I also want to mention that one member of the Committee addressed the Commission: their voices are heard here, and recommendations are provided. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is involved in a process to draft a general comment on drug policy. Continued support for civil society and a safe space are critical. Civil society must be supported.

Ambassador Raphael Nageli, Switzerland. Switzerland is proud of its efforts for pushing for human rights approach in international drug policy. Today, our national drug policy includes a 4 pillar approach: prevention, therapy, harm reduction and repression. We promote an inclusive approach of all relevant actors, including civil society. Our system is far from being perfect. Every drug policy must reflect realities in our society. But a holistic approach putting public health in the centre, with human rights, is necessary, but also imperative and will be successful. Drug policies are never static. Drug policies evolve, and many countries have evolved. Here I sense some push back. There were 24 countries calling for a human rights report in the World Drug Report, and there was stiff opposition on this. And this is hard to expect from us there at the United Nations. For us it’s intrinsically part of the agenda. There are also delegations that are pushing against the inclusion of civil society. This cannot be a solution. So we are in the middle of a process. There is push back but there are encouraging signs. I am glad we can discuss this today and that we can mainstream this agenda, putting human rights in the centre, and no longer focus on substances but on people, and change the paradigm we’re living in.

Ann Fordham, Executive Director, IDPC. Thank you to our co-sponsors and particularly to the Czech Republic and the other Member States – all of whom have consistently championed civil society participation in UN drug policy debates. We also welcome the conference room paper Katerina mentioned at the beginning. I’ll start by introducing IDPC…we are a global network that come together to advocate for drug policies that advance social justice and human rights. IDPC was set up in 2006 as a global coordination structure for collectivising civil society advocacy at the UN – which is where we still focus a large part of our efforts although we also work with members at the regional as well as national levels. Central to IDPC’s mandate is to ensure that space for civil society advocacy is created and held and over the years, we have seen the increased strength and visibility of civil society in the global drug policy debate at the UN. This achievement is important because civil society voices have traditionally not been valued within drug policy debates, especially when it has been framed as a security issue, and it has been a fight to ensure that CSOs and representatives of affected communities are heard. And I think we can see at the UN level and CND that sustained advocacy from pro-reform civil society actors has been crucial in shifting the rhetoric towards upholding human rights, ensuring the centrality of public health as well as promoting just and proportionate criminal justice responses. In order to broaden out the debate here in Vienna, we have consistently noted that drug policy does not operate in a vacuum and Vienna-based drug control bodies must acknowledge and welcome the input and expertise of other specialised UN entities and experts. The CND may have the prime responsibility for drug policy in at the UN – but precisely because of this role it has the obligation to genuinely integrate the contributions by UN bodies on human rights and health. And of course CND does not have a monopoly over drug-related matters. So it’s really important we have the OHCHR here today, the engagement of the high Commissioner, the General Comment from the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and the third resolution from the Human Rights Council on human rights and drug policy. We’ve been advocating very much for this progress on the human rights agenda.

Victor Sannes, National Drug Coordinator, Netherlands. We could hear several countries speaking on the INCB report, and stated that we shouldn’t have any human rights at all in drug policy. This highlights the importance of gathering here today. We should talk about it. I thought of 4 elements that are important to highlight. I could echo the Ambassador, Zaved and Ann, but I will provide a different perspective. We have evidence based drug policies, and that’s important. But this is also about being curious and be willing to know what is working and what isn’t. A balanced approach is also about the health perspective, the law enforcement perspective. I discovered listening to the general debate that there was very little talk about prevention. And prevention is still necessary: explaining what risks are related to the use of drugs. We face problems with large criminal organisations. We can look back from that and try to protect society and people. But part of this whole offensive is the prevention of young people falling in the hands of drug organisations while they’re still in high school. So part of the law enforcement politics should be about giving people opportunities and helping them with their lives. We have an approach comparable to Switzeelrnad. Prevention is better than cure, cure is better than harm reduction, but harm reduction is absolutely essential. I just came from a side event on drug checking, and this is essential, we are talking about saving people. We should be kind to each other and help each other when somebody needs help. We also discussed decriminalisation: let’s first start with the decriminalisation of drug use. I am very fond of decriminalisation because it means that somebody who has taken drugs, and something foes wrong, he or she can ask for help from a doctor, a first help station, without being in a criminal act, and this is essential just to have the possibility to ask for help. This is one of the key elements of our policy. And it works also in another way around: it helps to reduce stigma. In your policy, when you can talk about drug use, it is a step forward. In high school, we talk about drug use, but we also need to talk to parents about the risks for drug use and how to reduce harms. Communication is essential.

David Filomena, Ministry of Justice, Colombia. The topic of the side event is ‘what we have learned’, and we have learned that prohibition doesn’t work. In the contexts where it ‘works’, it is at the cost of human rights. It is not a political statement, it is a statement based on evidence that can be supported by hundreds of publications and research. We should have to review classifications, and eventual regulation of some substances. We have to see opportunities to review the medical and scientific uses of some substances to move slowly and gradually towards a regulation that can achieve peace in countries, and to improve health.

Questions and answers:

Katerina. Where do you see human rights and drug policy going in the coming years?

Arild. Norway has found many areas to improve. But they do not say that it’s against human rights to decriminalise drugs. But they don’t say it’s not against human rights to do so. Police are taking two steps back, social services are taking two steps forward. The police are now increasing the number of seizures as they no longer prioritise criminalising drug use. So what do you think about that?

Jindrich. I agree with you that we have certain behaviours that international law accepts we can put people in prison for. But I keep asking the question: if somebody is diagnosed with addiction, if it’s an illness? Do we put them in prison?

Zaved. Decriminalisation hinders access to treatment and increases stigma and discrimination so human rights bodies are clear on the need to decriminalise. I want to mention the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy which is a major win after the UNGASS. With regard to children, there is a need for prevention, but we need a human rights lens. You don’t need to criminalise children. If you criminalise and stigmatise them from the get go, they will be criminalised and stigmatised throughout their lives.

Ann. I do think that criminalising people for drug use, regardless of whether they are dependent or not violates human rights, in particular the right to health, it creates a structural barrier in access to services. From the HIV/AIDS Political Declaration from 2021, we have a target to remove restrictive laws and policies that hamper the HIV response. The argument from the human rights perspective not to criminalise people fro drug sue and possession is quite clear, and reduces instances of abuse and violence by the state. The conventions allow for people dependent on drugs to be diverted from the criminal justice system, and in general, decriminalisation should apply across the board. UNODC and the WHO have stated many times that of all people who use drugs, only about 10% may require treatment interventions.

Questions. It is honest to acknowledge who benefits from criminalisation. Because there is no much business at stake from the prison industrial complex, police, etc., it is hard to move away from prohibition and criminalisation. Could somebody comment on this too?

Jindrich. The Czech Presidency led on a document signed by the European Council on human rights in drug policy. It was a very tough debate in the EU. The main argument against it is something we need to work around: we have human rights, and we have security. And security is a commandment against decrim and the humanisation of drug policy.

Zaved. Addressing this issue and the impacts on the criminal justice system: criminalisation creates over incarceration all over the world. According to UNODC, 20% of the prison population in the world is incarcerated for drug crimes. And there is an impact on the whole criminal justice system. We have seen in many countries the collapse of the criminal justice system because of over-incarceration, and we must look at the issue from this perspective. Governments are willing to discuss the issue because of the impact on the criminal justice system, in various instances.

Victor. I don’t have an easy answer or solution to your question, because drug policy is complex. We should not criminalise use. In the Netherlands possession is not decriminalised, our public prosecution service will not go after a person stopped for possession for personal use. You have to think of how the systems work and who is benefiting. The issue should be about ending the criminalisation of everything, but then you take away the profit models. But I am from the Ministry of Health and I see the health risks here. And you don’t want some drugs to be on the market. But this is all about finding a balance. But I think we can agree here that you should not put people in prisons for possession for small quantities of drugs.

David. I want to say that it’s important to think of decriminalisation for PWUD and for small producers who have suffered marginalisation. People don’t need the strong hand of the state but also support in a social and rural development way. On the prison system, it’s a hard question to answer. It’s a difficult question, it’s a huge problem, including for big criminal organisations that run the market right now. In a way, the conventions can help manage the problem by fighting against criminal organisations but also relieving the prison system from marginalised populations.

Question. I am new here, I have a lot of experience working with families. But we see prisons meaning a lot as a relief. Psychologists and social workers talk to families, but prisons are the only way in which families are in touch with the health system in Austria. When I start to work with my families, I have one message: police and social workers are our friends. This is my experience in Vienna.

Iran Human Rights. I wanted to say a few words about the death penalty for drugs. There are countries executing people for drug trafficking, including in my country in Iran. At that time, UNODC had projects in Iran and Iran used that excuse to justify the executions as being at the forefront of combatting drugs. But we recently saw a huge reduction in the number of executions because of the change in the law, through pressure from countries, funding from UNODC projects inside Iran. So for 3 years we had low numbers of executions, but the trend has now reversed. Last year, we had 200+ drug related executions. Since 2023, we had more than 2 executions every day, with 85 executions, and there has been no reaction to that from UNODC, and I wonder why. Human rights are a pillar of the UN. So why is there no reaction to this?

Zaved. We will have a discussion on the death penalty tomorrow, so we can discuss then. But I emphasise your statement, OHCHR is regularly condemning what is happening.

Ann. I want to pick up on our Vienna colleague. I think that your experience with the police is exceptional. We have colleagues from South East Asia, and many other parts of the world and the story is very different. In British Colombia they have decided to implement a three-year project for the police not to target people who use drugs as the police recognised that they were exacerbating the problem and risks to fatal overdose. We need to continue the conversation about the roel of the police, but we have to consider decrim as the next step. There is a UN Common Position on drugs that supports decrim and it is promoted by the OHCHR. It’s important that we normalise this conversation at the CND.

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