Using the annual meeting of the United Nation's Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna as a springboard, an international consortium of drug policy, harm reduction, and human rights groups Monday slammed the UN drug bureaucracies for ignoring numerous, widespread human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of global drug prohibition. The UN must stand up for human rights in the drug control regime, the groups said.
The charge was made in a report released the same day, "Recalibrating the Regime: The Need for a Human Rights-Based Approach to International Drug Policy (pdf)," endorsed jointly by Human Rights Watch, the International Harm Reduction Association, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Program. It was presented this week in Vienna during a discussion of the worldwide human rights impact of the drug war conducted as part of a series of events countering the official CND meeting.
The CND, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), are the three UN entities charged with enforcing global drug prohibition as enshrined in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and its two successor treaties. The CND was meeting this week to review whether the UN had met its 1998 10-year goal to achieve "measurable results" in the fight against drugs, including a "significant reduction" in the cultivation of cannabis, coca, and opium.
The Monday report cites murderous campaigns against drug suspects in Thailand in 2003 -- and the prospect of a repeat of that deadly drug war by the new Thai government -- the violent police campaign against drug dealers (and innocent bystanders) in Brazil, the grotesque Chinese habit of celebrating the UN's international anti-drug day by executing convicted drug offenders, the resort to the death penalty for drug offenders in more than 60 countries, the mass incarceration of drug offenders and the racially discriminatory enforcement of drug laws in places like the United States, and much, much, more as evidence that human rights comes in a distant second to the prerogatives of drug prohibition.
Thai officials attend human rights panel slamming Thai government
In the face of this litany of human rights abuses in the name
of enforcing drug prohibition, the UN agencies have remained
so quiet as to be almost "complicit" in them, the report
argues. There has been "little engagement" with this
issue by the CND, the INCB, the UNODC -- or even the UN's human
rights treaties bodies, the report said.
"Despite the primacy of human rights obligations under the UN Charter, the approach of the UN system and the wider international community to addressing the tensions between drug control and human rights remains ambiguous," said Richard Elliott of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. "This is inexcusable in the face of the egregious human rights abuses perpetrated in the course of enforcing drug prohibition, which in turn damages global efforts to prevent and treat HIV."
"Last week, INCB President Philip Emafo stated in the board's 2008 annual report that 'To do nothing [about drugs] is not an option'," said Rick Lines of the International Harm Reduction Association. "We are here today to state clearly that doing nothing about the human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of the drug war is also not an option. In this, the 60th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, CND member states and indeed the entire UN family must speak out clearly that human rights must not be sacrificed on the altar of drug control."
The new Thai government's repeated comments that it intends to go back to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's murderous drug war of 2003, in which some 2,800 were killed, aroused particular concern among the groups.
"As the UNODC has acknowledged, there are proven methods to address drug use while protecting human rights. Murder is not one of them," said Rebecca Schleifer, advocate with the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "As a member of the CND, Thailand must be held to account for its actions on drugs, and pressure brought by the international community to ensure that human rights violations are not repeated."
The Thai may be feeling the pressure. At the Monday afternoon "side session" organized by the groups, not one but three officials from the Thai government attended, all of them expressing the view that policies have "good effects and bad," and inviting advocates to provide information to help them improve policies. Time will tell whether it was a serious offer and whether they can influence their government in a positive direction if so.
Monday's report was only part of a broader onslaught directed at the UN anti-drug bureaucracies and their seeming disdain for human rights. Last week, in the wake of the release of the INCB's 2007 Annual Report, which called for "proportionality" in the enforcement of drug laws at the same time it called for criminalizing millions of people who chew coca leaf, that organization was critiqued in a response by the International Drug Policy Consortium, a global network of national and international groups specializing in issues relating to drug use, legal or illegal.
While the consortium congratulated the INCB for its call for proportionality and a slight retreat in its resistance to harm reduction, it warned that such good news "will be rendered meaningless if the Board does not consistently reflect these principles in its ongoing work with national governments and other UN agencies."
The consortium also harshly criticized the INCB for its call for the banning of the growing and consumption of coca. "Of greater concern is the continuing intransigence shown towards the issue of indigenous use of coca products in Bolivia," the consortium's response said. "Where there is an unresolved inconsistency within the drug control conventions, and between drug control and other international obligations and treaties, the role of the INCB should be to highlight these dilemmas and help governments to find a resolution, instead of issuing rigid and non-universal declarations."
The British drug charity DrugScope, a member of the consortium, called on the INCB to do more. "Drug users are vilified and marginalized worldwide," said Harry Shapiro, the group's director of communications. "Some nations feel that any action against them is justified, including murder. We are encouraged that the INCB recognizes this is unacceptable and that a balance must be struck between the enforcement of drug laws and the human rights and civil liberties of those with serious problems."
The INCB must match its actions to its words, Shapiro said. "But DrugScope and the International Drug Policy Consortium feel that the INCB, from their position of international authority, must follow their condemnation of human rights abuses through to its logical conclusion, The INCB must offer public criticism of particular countries with the worst human rights record in this area."
Instead of UN anti-drug agencies sticking up for human rights, they have now become the objects of criticism themselves. The official international prohibitionist drug policy consensus may be holding at the UN, but it is clearly fraying, and civil society is no longer willing to sit quietly in the face of injustice, whether in Bangkok or Baltimore, Rio or Russia.
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