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Tackling the world drug problem: UN experts urge States to adopt human rights approach

GENEVA (18 April 2016) – Ahead of the UN General Assembly Special session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS), taking place in New York from 19 to 21 April 2016, a group of United Nations human rights experts have called on States to use the occasion to integrate their human rights obligations in the international drug control regime:

“We believe that UNGASS provides an important occasion to reflect upon the achievements and challenges of international drug control and its impact upon the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Through our respective mandates, we have examined the human rights impact of international drug control and remain deeply concerned that existing policy approaches contribute to an environment of increased human rights risk, and in many cases, fuel widespread and systemic abuses.

While we are encouraged by the presence of human rights language and standards throughout the current outcome document, in our opinion, the text fails to sufficiently articulate the binding nature of human rights obligations in the context of international drug control and continues to embrace the harmful concept of a ‘drug-free world.

We are concerned that the current international drug control regime remains excessively punitive.  Most drug control policies at the national level are based on criminalisation, incarceration, and over-investment in law enforcement, which have proven to be serious barriers in the protection and fulfilment of human rights. 

In particular, we reject the use of the death penalty for drug offences, and consider most of the existing drug control approaches problematic due to the criminalisation, and overuse of incarceration for drug offences. Such approaches have led to overburdened criminal justice and prison systems where standards of care and living create an environment where torture and ill-treatment are more likely to happen. 

To adequately address the drug problem, States must protect, respect, and fulfil the right to health of the population by committing maximum available resources to ensure access to affordable and quality health services.  This includes access to essential medicines, palliative care, comprehensive drug prevention and education, drug treatment, and harm reduction. 

We welcome the focus on children and young people as a cross-cutting theme of the UNGASS, given the wide range of children’s rights affected by drug use, drug trade and repressive government policies across the drug market chain. 

Prevention is an important part of addressing drug use among children, but it must be pursued through evidence-based interventions as well as accurate and objective educational programmes and information campaigns. 

UGASS represents a pivotal moment to consolidate the integration of human rights and drug policy. We therefore urge member States to make bold commitments and ensure that the promotion and protection of human rights is central to the development of the 2019 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on Drugs.

We will continue to pay attention to the intersection of drug policy and human rights within the scope of their respective mandates.


To read the full statement made by the experts, see

The experts: Mr. Juan E. Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Mr. Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Mr. Seong-Phil Hong, Chair-Rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Mr. Dainius Pûras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, and Benyam Dawit Mezmur, Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Dolores Infante-Cañibano (+41 22 917 9768 / dinfante@ohchr.org), or write to srhealth@ohchr.org

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is one of the 10 committees of independent experts, known as Treaty Bodies, that monitor implementation by States parties of the core international human rights treaties adopted by the UN General Assembly. A State that ratifies a treaty is thereby agreeing to be subject to periodic review. Committee members are not UN staff but human rights experts nominated and elected for fixed renewable terms of four years by State parties. However, they are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work. Under what are known as the Addis Ababa guidelines, a member does not participate in the review of his or her own country.

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