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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Türk urges transformative change in global drug policy

14 March 2024

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


High Level Segment Vienna, 67th session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs



Mr Chair,
Distinguished Delegates, 

I very much welcome the opportunity to address this Commission.

At such a critical moment for global action on the world drug situation.

After decades of following a largely punitive approach, we can see this simply is not working.

Not by any metric.

The number of people using drugs has sharply risen.

Criminalization, including the use of the death penalty, has neither diminished drug use nor deterred drug-related crime.

Instead, more and more lives ruined, not just by the use of drugs in itself, but also by the fallout of counterproductive policies.

Mass incarceration; communities stigmatized, impoverished and plagued by violence; arbitrary detention; the escalation of lethal force that can descend into extrajudicial killings taking place with impunity.

A list that goes on.

Representing a roll-call of misery and violations of human rights.

It does not have to be this way.

We have the evidence of what works.

And the means to implement it.

With the 2024 mid-term review very much in mind, my Office issued a report last August on human rights challenges related to the global drug problem.

Clearly setting out the serious human rights consequences of the “war on drugs”.

And highlighting positive developments in the form of drug policy approaches that are health- and rights-centred.

Approaches that do not resort to condemning people who use drugs as criminals.

But, instead, view their situation through the lens of human dignity and rights.

A number of countries have ventured down this path, applying an evidence-based harm reduction approach, and decriminalizing the use of some drugs.

In Portugal and Switzerland, for example, decades of decriminalization of personal consumption and possession have lowered drug-use, overdoses and HIV infections.

In Colombia, a new national drug policy is anchored in human rights and development.

Focusing on improving the living conditions of communities that depend on the drug economy.

Targeting prosecutions at those who benefit most from criminal activity while dismantling criminal networks.

Pakistan ended capital punishment for drug-related offences last year.

I urge all countries to embrace this positive shift to evolve their own approaches.

Our report sets out recommendations on how to do this.

Building on the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy.

We need inclusive and gender sensitive drug policies that ensure access, on a voluntary basis, to medical care, drug dependence treatment and harm reduction services.

And which are designed, implemented and evaluated through processes that facilitate the meaningful engagement of people who use drugs, affected communities, youth and civil society organizations.

We need urgent action to end discrimination in law enforcement against people of African descent, Indigenous Peoples and marginalized populations.

And, as we revitalize efforts towards the 2030 Agenda, we must stop leaving behind people who use drugs, their families and affected communities.

This means, as the Commission has recognised, investing in alternative development.

We must also address the poverty, lack of opportunities, insecure environments - the whole range of underlying, structural, socioeconomic factors - that increase the risk of people using drugs or becoming involved in the drug trade.

As for decriminalization of personal use, if well designed and implemented, this can also be a powerful instrument to ensure better protection of the rights of people who use drugs.

Excellencies, colleagues,

This mid-term review is a moment of great opportunity.

For setting in motion the transformative change that is needed globally on drug policies.

I welcome the renewed commitment to human rights in the High Level Declaration, adopted today, along with commitments to evidence-based policies, the mainstreaming of age and gender perspectives, and to the health of individuals, families and communities.

In relation to the gaps that the Declaration identifies in meeting international commitments, I urge States, civil society and other stakeholders to implement the recommendations in my Office’s report.

And to work with us and the broader UN human rights system to move forward together in embedding an approach to the world drug situation that is as humane as it is effective.

Thank you.