05 October 2011

The War on Drugs: Undermining Human Rights

The global “war on drugs” has been fought for 50 years, without preventing the long-term trend of increasing drug supply and use. Beyond this failure, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has identified many serious “unintended negative consequences” of the drug war – including widespread human rights abuses.

These human rights costs result not from drug use itself, but from choosing a punitive enforcement-led approach that, by its nature, criminalises many users, often the most vulnerable in society, and places organised criminals in control of the trade. 

This briefing summarises these human rights costs. There is naturally overlap with other areas of the Count the Costs project, including: security and development, discrimination and stigma, public health, crime, the environment, and economics. For briefings and a more extensive collection of resources on these costs see www.countthecosts.org


Today sees the publication of the Count the Costs Human Rights Briefing, which has been produced in collaboration with various Count the Costs project supporters, including Transform , EHRN , Harm Reduction International  and Release .

The 18-page briefing is available online in PDF, and in print in English and in Spanish. It covers the wide range of human rights issues impacted by the war on drugs, including sections on:

  • Drug use and criminalisation
  • The right to a fair trial and due process standards
  • Torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • The death penalty and extrajudicial killings
  • Over-incarceration and arbitrary detention
  • The right to health
  • The right to social security and an adequate standard of living
  • Rights of the child
  • Cultural and indigenous rights

From the introduction:

"In every region of the world the war on drugs is severely undermining human rights. It has led to a litany of abuse, neglect and political scapegoating through the erosion of civil liberties and fair trial standards; the denial of economic and social rights; the demonising of individuals and groups; and the imposition of abusive and inhuman punishments. 

Too often these human rights violations are considered in isolation – a drug user beaten by police to extract information; a drug courier executed by firing squad; a family killed at a military checkpoint; an HIV worker imprisoned for distributing harm reduction information; a family displaced by aerial fumigation of their crops; a drug user detained for years of forced labour and beatings on the recommendation of a police officer; a cancer sufferer denied pain-killing medicine. But they are not isolated. They are all a direct consequence of the war on drugs.

Like the war on terror, the war on drugs is framed as a response to an exceptional, existential threat to our health, our security, and indeed the very fabric of society. The “Addiction to narcotic drugs” is portrayed as an “evil” the international community has a moral duty to “combat” because it is a “danger of incalculable gravity” that warrants a series of (otherwise publicly unacceptable) extraordinary measures. This is not an exaggeration of the political rhetoric. These words are enshrined in international law, including the 1961, 1971 and 1988 UN drug conventions. This crusading language has created a political climate in which drug war policy and enforcement are not required to meet human rights norms.

In fact, despite being one of the three pillars of the UN’s work (along with development and security), these international agreements lack any obligation to ensure compliance with human rights. In over one hundred articles, human rights appear specifically only once (in relation to crop eradication)(4) – a staggering omission in treaties negotiated and adopted post-World War II, in the era of the modern human rights movement. This omission is now reflected in national law and policy worldwide. Through production, transit, sales and use, the responses to every stage in the supply chain of illicit drugs are characterised by extensive human rights violations, committed in the name of supply and demand reduction.

In order to meaningfully count these human rights costs, it is necessary to not only see the connections between law and policy, and the effects on the ground, but also to make comparisons with what happens under alternative approaches, including the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs, and models of legal regulation. For example, most of the abuses resulting from a punitive, enforcement-led approach to illegal drugs do not occur in relation to the production, sale and use of tobacco, alcohol and prescription medicines.

Ultimately, just as UN member states refer to “shared responsibility” for drug control, so too must they bear shared responsibility for human rights abuses perpetrated in its name. That is what Count the Costs is about – taking responsibility and openly evaluating all policy impacts, and all other options."

George Murkin
Count the Costs
50 Years of the War on Drugs

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