ACLU Statement to the United Nations: Adopting a Human Rights-Based Global Drug Policy

Document Date: July 7, 2008

A decade ago the United Nations (U.N.) issued a declaration outlining its 10-year global strategy to “eliminate or significantly reduce” all illicit coca, marijuana, and opium plants from the earth under the motto, “A drug free world – we can do it!”

This week, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) will measure progress in this global “war on drugs” at a meeting in Vienna, Austria. The American Civil Liberties Union will join a diverse coalition of civil and human rights organizations participating in the “Beyond 2008 Forum,” an unprecedented opportunity to review the past decade of international drug policy and to shape its future course. The U.N. convened this forum to provide the non-governmental organization community the opportunity to contribute to the development of future policy, practice, and strategy. For the first time, the international drug strategy will be informed by outside voices – a sensible approach that is commonplace for other issues, but has long been taboo on issues of drug policy.

The ACLU seeks an end to punitive drug policies that cause widespread constitutional and human rights violations, as well as unprecedented levels of incarceration. U.S. government insistence on incarceration as a catch-all solution to the misuse of illicit drugs has failed to reduce drug-related harm both at home and abroad, while defying the basic tenets of the U.N.’s Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The global experience of the past 10 years demonstrates that current drug policies have exacerbated – not abated – violence, health epidemics, and civil and human rights violations:

  • The U.N.’s 2008 World Drug Report announced that illicit coca and opium production are at an all time high.
  • A 2008 World Health Organization study found that America has higher rates of both cocaine and marijuana use than countries with less punitive drug laws.
  • The U.S. imprisons 10 times as many people for drug offenses as does the European Union, which has 200 million more inhabitants.
  • In the U.S., the world’s wealthiest nation, drug overdose rates have tripled since 1990, and drug treatment remains unavailable to over 20 million people in need.
  • The Centers for Disease Control estimates that in the U.S. injection drug use accounts for 60% of all new cases of hepatitis C, and approximately one-fourth of all new HIV/AIDS cases.
  • Worldwide, drugs remain the largest source of income for organized crime, and drug-related violence is visibly spiraling out of control in Mexico, Afghanistan, West Africa, and elsewhere.

The time has come for the U.S. and the international community to come to terms with the clear limitations of a drug policy principally devoted to supply-side enforcement and incarceration.

Some members of the international community have long acknowledged the failure of U.S.-style drug prohibition as a model for global drug policy and have turned toward health-based approaches more in line with the U.N.’s health and human rights mandates. Beyond decriminalizing some adult drug use, several nations like Canada and the Netherlands have begun to experiment with a range of promising harm reduction approaches, such as providing people with drug addictions clean needles and counseling rather than imposing lengthy prison sentences. Such policies recognize that a drug free world is presently beyond reach and focus on minimizing the dangers faced by at risk individuals and society at large. This approach has proven both effective and better aligned with international human rights and public safety mandates.

Even within the U.S., support for the global “war on drugs” is waning. The foundational American values of liberty, privacy and limited government power have been severely undermined by drug war tactics. One in 100 adults in the U.S. are behind bars, largely due to drug laws, giving the U.S. the dubious distinction as the world’s leading jailer. With drug use, production and availability remaining steady, the American public is waking up to the reality that over-reliance on enforcement and incarceration is neither good for public safety nor economically sustainable. National public opinion polls bear this out, finding a sizable majority of Americans favor treatment over incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.

With this week’s meeting, the U.N. has the opportunity to move away from the counterproductive policies that have dominated U.S. and, in turn, international drug policy for the past decade. U.N. drug policy has been left to operate in a lonely silo, apparently exempt from the tenets of transparency and accountability that guide other U.N. policy-making bodies. Sadly, where the international drug control regime has conflicted with human rights, systematic discrimination, abusive law enforcement practices, mass incarceration and easily avoidable health epidemics have prevailed.

The U.N., and specifically the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), have the power to take a step in the right direction by adopting resolutions acknowledging the Universal Declaration on Human Rights’ centrality to all of the U.N.’s work, and mandating that the U.N.’s drug control bodies adopt a human rights-based approach in accordance with U.N. human rights law. For this step to be effective, however, member states must also make specific resolutions mandating that U.N. drug control policy be conducted in accordance with human rights law.

Directives from the U.N. General Assembly to conduct drug control efforts in compliance with human rights norms have been ignored in the past. The CND – the U.N.’s inter-state body that directs international drug policy – has never adopted a resolution with any operational human rights obligations. Meanwhile, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the monitoring body for the U.N. drug control conventions, has openly stated that it will not address human rights.

Application of international human rights laws can address many of the flaws and inequalities of the current drug control system. As mandated in the U.N.’s Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and several other treaties, human rights standards hold a greater position of legal authority than drug control treaties. For the U.N.’s drug control system to be consistent with the requirements of its own Charter, human rights must be the starting point, not an after-thought.

A human rights-based approach to global drug policy would principally (1) prioritize prevention and treatment of negative health consequences of drug misuse over criminal justice responses and supply-side reduction measures, and (2) require that U.N. bodies measure effectiveness by assessing indicators of drug-related harm, rather than relying solely on drug use and interdiction statistics. Drug-related “harm” includes overdose rates, disease transmission rates, negative drug enforcement consequences as well as individual and communal criminal justice system-related consequences. To succeed, U.N. drug policy bodies must work closely with the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, a joint program of the U.N., to adopt effective strategies for reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

The following specific policy proposals should be implemented in order to align U.N. drug policy with its health and human rights mandates:

1) Reform of the International Narcotics Control Board

• Regular, independent evaluations of the INCB must be administered to guarantee accountability.

• The INCB must clarify its position on harm reduction and human rights in relation to the U.N.’s overall goals.

• The INCB must acknowledge the authority of less rigid interpretations of the drug control treaties.

• The INCB must function more openly, and involve civil society in its operations.

• The INCB must improve the availability of treatment for chemical dependence, and develop greater expertise on HIV, public health, and human rights.

2) Emphasis on Human Rights from the Committee on Narcotic Drugs

• The CND should adopt a resolution acknowledging the Universal Declaration of Human Right’s relevance to all of its work.

• Member states must make specific resolutions mandating the U.N. drug control policy be conducted in accordance with human rights law and with the aim of furthering human rights protections.

• The CND should adopt a resolution that mandates that all drug control arms of the U.N. adopt a human rights-based approach to their work in accordance with the aims of the U.N. Charter and human rights treaties.

3) Focus on Drug Control-Related Human Rights Violations from U.N. Human Rights Bodies

• The U.N. Human Rights Council and other human rights treaty bodies should emphasize in their work greater focus on human rights violations caused by drug control efforts.

People and governments throughout the world are increasingly recognizing that the global “war on drugs” does more harm than good. The U.N. must acknowledge this reality and set a new direction in drug policy that respects and upholds the health and human rights of all people.

In 1998, at the last U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs then-ACLU executive director Ira Glasser joined former U.N. Chief Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Nobel Laureate and ex-Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, economist Milton Friedman, current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and over 500 prominent academics, scientists, and political leaders, in a letter to then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan stating:

“We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself. Every decade the United Nations adopts new international conventions, focused largely on criminalization and punishment, that restrict the ability of individual nations to devise effective solutions to local drug problems. Every year governments enact more punitive and costly drug control measures… Secretary General, we appeal to you to initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the future of global drug control policies – one in which fear, prejudice and punitive prohibitions yield to common sense, science, public health and human rights.”

Ten years later, following the pleas of diverse segments of civil society, that “open and honest dialogue” is finally beginning. But without the U.N.’s adoption of the preceding recommendations, common sense, public health and safety, and, above all, human rights will remain hostage to ineffective and counterproductive drug policies.

Universal human rights and global safety from drug-related harm are not mutually exclusive. An honest examination by the U.N. of the past 10 years, informed by diverse voices, and, most importantly, by its own voice within its Charter and human rights mandates, can yield an evolved international strategy recognizing human freedom and dignity as the ultimate goals – not enemies – of global drug policy.

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