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Statements Special Procedures

Drug Issues, Different Perspectives: A Policy Forum, May 5-6, 2017 GT-Toyota Asian Center Auditorium Manila

05 May 2017

Key Note Speech
Dr. Agnes Callamard
United Nations Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to thank the organisers of the policy forum – FLAG anti-death penalty task force – for organising this Forum and inviting me to participate in it – I am both grateful and honoured!

This is an important initiative – a timely initiative – one which I support wholeheartedly.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimate that worldwide some 29 million people who use drugs suffer from drug use disorders while drug trafficking by trans-national criminal cartels is a major source of violence and insecurity the world over, affecting every society.  Drug trafficking is also a major source of corruption, undermining both the rule of law and good governance and eroding public trust. 

Altogether, drug trafficking, drug abuse and their consequences constitute major threats to the lives, health, dignity and hopes of millions of people and their loved ones. In response, almost a year ago to this very day, Heads of State and Government assembled at the United Nations Headquarters to consider a global plan of action called: Our joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem. I encourage you to consult it.
The document is difficult to summarize given its breadth but allow me to highlight a few of its key aspects for you:

The special session of the UN General Assembly drafted a comprehensive approach that takes into account a range of human and other factors that drive the drug problem including social development, public health, justice and human rights. It calls for more effective approaches than the punishment/punitive model that some governments have adopted.

It urges governments to uphold the inherent dignity of all individuals, to respect, protect and promote all human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law and in the development and implementation of drug policies,

The Joint Commitment also recognizes that drug dependence is a complex health disorder of a chronic and relapsing nature, whose social causes and consequences can be prevented and treated through, inter alia, effective scientific evidence-based drug treatment, care and rehabilitation programmes, including community-based programmes.

The world’s leaders recognised the important role played by civil society organizations and those entities involved in drug-related treatment services and committed to intensify their role and cooperation with them

They denounced repeatedly, drug-related corruption; decrying its role in the obstruction of justice, including through intimidation of justice officials.

They promised to elaborate effective scientific evidence-based prevention strategies that are centred on and tailored to the needs of individuals, families and communities and they committed to promote proportionate national sentencing policies, practices and guidelines too for drug-related offences.

Throughout the joint commitment document, governments affirm the importance of systematic data collection, evidence gathering, scientific research and the sharing of information including the exchange of best practices related to preventing and countering drug-related crime

What governments did not commit to last year was  “the war on drugs” approach.

Quite to the contrary. They called for what amounts to a balanced, multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary approach, and they placed great emphasis on health, rights, and justice

They did not suggest that death penalty was an appropriate or effective response to drugs trafficking, let alone drug use; Instead, they spoke about proportionate sentencing and alternative punishments.

Their document is not perfect. The Joint Commitment to Effectively Addressing and Countering the World Drug Problem is criticised, by activists and a number of politicians from around the world, for not considering more explicitly the role of harm reduction strategies, for instance, such as needle and syringe programmes and prescription of substitute medications.

But in April 2016, the general assembly of the world’s government recognised explicitly that the “war on drugs” – be it community based, national or global – does not work.  And further, that many harms associated with drugs are not caused by drugs, but by the negative impacts of badly thought out drug policies.

The joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem is a call for action, but not to any action: according to the world’s leaders there are other ways, better ways; evidence-based, scientific ways, of combating drug abuse and trafficking – ways that do not make matters worse.

Badly thought out, ill-conceived drug policies not only fail to address substantively drug dependency, drug-related criminality, and the drug trade, they add more problems, as has been well documented, around the world, including by United Nations bodies and Special Rapporteurs.

They add, escalate and/or compound problems such as:

  • Killings, extra-judicial or by criminal gangs; the break-down of the rule of law;
  • Vigilante crimes,
  • Torture, ill-treatment and sexual violence;
  • Prolonged pre-trial detention, mandatory sentencing and disproportionately long sentences for drug possession, etc.
  • Detention in drug and rehabilitation centres without trial or a proper evaluation of drug dependency;
  • Non-consensual experimental treatment;

And further, badly thought out, ill-conceived drug policies can foster a regime of impunity infecting the whole justice sector and reaching into whole societies, invigorating the rule of violence rather than of law; eroding public trust in public institutions; breeding fear and leading people to despair.

These are the findings from research undertaken around the world.  Let me be clear.  In none of the countries where the perverse consequences of ill-thought out drug policies were reported, in none of these countries did the drug problem disappear. In fact, the opposite happened.

And so we are here today and tomorrow – to take stock – to learn from experts here and from abroad, those who have long considered, studied and analysed drug policies, their impact and effectiveness.   And we are here, together, to contribute ourselves to the implementation of the joint commitment by:

  • Providing evidence and data to support evidence-based policies and strategies;
  • Collaborating and cooperating across different countries and diverse areas of expertise - highlighted as being so important by Governments last year;
  • Listening to one another, respectfully, politely but engaging too in robust exchange;
  • Developing proposals with and for the Government of the Philippines, other stakeholders, and the people of the Philippines – proposals on drugs policies and responses that are effective, and sustainable, taking into account the country’s specific situation, history and context, as well as its multiple assets and opportunities.

To take part in these exchanges is truly a privilege and I thank you for it.

Let me end by sharing a few more personal reflections. 

Those of us who are involved in human rights work know only too well that we are living in a world of intense disruption. Its symptoms and its footprint is there for all to see; apparent everywhere. Climate, people movement, globalized economy and globalized crime … but it is also the case that there is too is a disruption of norms and values. 

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has often lamented the caustic consequences of these disruptions:  It is not merely that human rights are abused – they frequently are and frequently have been. 

What is exceptional is the fact that the very idea of human rights is being questioned and in many places rejected. And that constitutes a marked alteration of our environment globally and locally, possibly the most significant human rights development since the establishment of the modern global and universal human rights system at the end of world war two.

The attacks we are witnessing on universal, indivisible rights; the undermining of equality, dignity, and accountability – share similarities wherever they take place:

  • There is an extensive application – even advocacy - of a doctrine of global war
  • A certain conception of security, narrowly defined and in opposition to genuine human security, is taking hold ,
  • A blurring of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants; and an ever broadening understanding of the “enemy,” including the enemy within.

Most crucially however this rejection of human rights is predicated on a rejection of our common humanity.
The rejects - those that don’t fit in, are not welcome, are to be rejected, criminalised, punished may differ from country to country, community to community, leader to leader - but be assured they all are human.

  • They may be migrants or refugees
  • They may be the poor or the very poor, the homeless,
  • They are street children
  • Indigenous people;
  • Political opponents or critics;
  • They are the other… and
  • They may be drug users or drug pushers

Any one of these and so many others who, are for one reason or another, denied their humanity and their human standing – their rights – to justice, to freedom of movement, to protection from force, to freedom of expression.  Denied as right holders, as citizens.

These profoundly disturbing developments are occurring at the hands of authorities that should and can know better.  Their demonization – and the unaccountable, empowerment of authority that accompanies it – pushes open a door onto an abyss – a void into which humanity has thrown itself before with awful consequences – because, of course, one cannot deny the humanity of some people without losing humanity for all people.

And so we are here today.

I am immensely grateful for this invitation, for giving me the incredible opportunity to spend some time with you.

Over the last 8 months since I have been appointed UN Special Rapporteur I have watched and from afar, but never from too far.  I have followed testimonies of the relatives of victims, I have seen the brave work of civil society actors, lawyers, human rights defenders, academics, senators, I have heard debates between politicians, explanations by government officials, and indeed I have watched footage too of police and military men – and all saying there are other ways; better ways; other options, and better options.

This forum, with the commitment and the good will of all parties, from the government to civil society, from the police to the health sector – is an important benchmark to shine the light of scrutiny, of fact finding, of knowledge, of evidence – impartial and true – so that we may seek more clearly our way to preventing, responding, supporting.

This light of evidence will help identify and implement the best possible drug/anti drug policies, and interventions. That light will lead – to rights upheld, fulfilled and enjoyed for and by all.

An American vice president Hubert Humphrey once observed “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life”. 

People living in life’s shadows are not to be abandoned there. 

We are not to be abandoned there.

I am deeply honoured to have been involved in this journey with you and deeply committed to continue on that journey with you, beginning with these two days conference.