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Statement by Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Panel discussion on the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights

28 September 2015

Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

This panel discussion will address the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights. It is informed by the report of the High Commissioner on the same subject.

Although OHCHR, the Special Procedures of the Council and treaty bodies have addressed issues related to human rights and drug policies already for a number of years, this study is the first comprehensive report the High Commissioner has been requested to do on this subject.

The report addresses the impact of the world drug problem in five main areas: the right to health, rights relating to criminal justice, the prohibition of discrimination including, in particular against ethnic minorities and women, the rights of the child and the rights of indigenous peoples. I would now like to address in more detail issues raised around these five substantive themes.

Let me start with the right to health.

This Council recognized the need for harm reduction programmes already in its resolution 12/27. Today, such measures, including syringe exchange programmes and opioid substitution therapy, are available in slightly less than half of countries worldwide. However, the availability of such measures in prisons is far more restricted and urgently needed. Harm reduction measures help to substantially reduce HIV infections as well as the transmission of other blood borne viruses, in a cost effective manner, and without any major negative consequences. The report therefore encourages States to embrace harm reduction approaches when dealing with drug dependent persons.

Access to essential controlled medicines is also far too limited, particularly in developing countries. As noted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to health, access to controlled medicines is often restricted for fear that they will be diverted from legitimate medical uses to illicit purposes. But restricting access to opioids affects not only their availability for opioid substitution therapy, but also their use for the management of moderate to severe pain and other health needs.

This brings me to the issue of decriminalization. The Special Rapporteur on the right to health called for decriminalization of the possession and use of drugs already in his 2010 report to the Council. WHO and UNAIDS have taken similar positions. This is because criminalization of possession and use has been shown to cause significant obstacles to the right to health:

  • In States where drug use is criminalized, drug users may refrain from seeking health care for fear that they could be arrested or imprisoned, included on drug registries, or subjected to treatment against their will.
  • Targeted arrests of drug users at or near drug treatment clinics have been reported in some countries.
  • Fear of arrest and imprisonment has also discouraged drug users from seeking assistance from health professionals on how to prepare and inject drugs safely.
  • This has resulted in risky forms of drug use that may increase infections, vascular accidents and the risk of overdose, which is the main cause of drug-related deaths.
  • Criminalization in some States has also included criminalization of the dissemination of information on safe practices pertaining to drug use and harm reduction.

For these reasons, the report endorses the Special Rapporteur’s, WHO’s and UNAIDS’ call on States to consider decriminalizing possession and use of drugs.

Second, let me raise some issues relating to criminal justice.

It has been estimated that 33 countries or territories continue to impose the death penalty for drug-related offences, resulting in approximately 1,000 executions annually. In some States, drug-related offences account for the majority of executions carried out.

However, according to the findings of the Human Rights Committee, the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on torture, drug-related offences do not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes”, specified in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and which is required for the imposition of the death sentence.
According to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, persons suspected of having committed drug-related offences are particularly at risk of arbitrary detention. In some States, persons who are arrested for drug-related offences are kept in custody without being charged for a substantially longer period of time than those arrested for other crimes, or are automatically held in pre-trial detention without examining the individual circumstances of their case.

Drug users may also be subjected to torture or ill treatment in custody to obtain a confession or other information. The Special Rapporteur on torture and the Human Rights Committee have both noted that law enforcement officials, in some States, have intentionally withheld opioid substitution therapy from drug- dependent suspects in custody to extract confessions or obtain other information, a practice they found to constitute torture.

Third, the prohibition of discrimination.

In some States, convictions for drug-related offences result in disproportionately harsh sentences for relatively minor offences, and adversely affect a range of rights or entitlement to benefits, including custody of children or visitation rights, access to public housing, food assistance or student financial aid, or eligibility for certain types of employment. The report quotes former Secretary-General Kofi Annan who said, “A criminal record for a young person for a minor drug offence can be a far greater threat to their well-being than occasional drug use.” The report recommends that, given the severe impact that a conviction can have on a person’s life, consideration should be given to alternatives to prosecution and imprisonment of persons for minor, non-violent, drug-related offences.

Ethnic minorities and women may be particularly subject to discrimination in law enforcement efforts, particularly for the use or possession of drugs or for their role as ‘micro-distributors’. The report calls on States to reform laws and policies to address the disparate impact of drug enforcement policies on ethnic minorities and women, and to provide training for those who come in contact with drug users to eliminate discrimination.

Concerning the rights of the child.

Children should be protected by focusing on prevention, and should receive accurate and objective information on drugs in a child-friendly and age appropriate manner.

The report, consistent with the recommendations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, indicates that children should not be subject to criminal prosecution. Responses should focus on health education, treatment, including harm reduction measures, and social re-integration.

Concerning the rights of indigenous peoples.

They have the right to follow their traditional, cultural and religious practices, and where drug use is part of these practices, it should in principle be permitted.

In concluding, it is clear that the world’s drug problem impacts the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, often resulting in serious violations. It is, nevertheless, a positive development that human rights are increasingly being taken into account in the preparations for the General Assembly’s Special Session on the world drug problem to be held in April 2016. I very much welcome the cooperation between OHCHR and agencies such as UNODC,WHO, UNAIDS, UNDP and DPA on this subject, and hope that we can further strengthen this cooperation in the future.

It is my sincere hope that in the outcome documents of the General Assembly’s Special Session on the world drug problem, human rights will be addressed in a constructive and specific manner so that human rights violations relating to the world drug problem are addressed, and that protection of human rights can be better integrated into State law and practice in the years to come.

Thank you.