A major shift in international drug policies happened last month: in an unexpected move, the central UN body on drugs (CND) self-disqualified, leaving room for the UN Human Rights organs to make steps ahead, and increase their role in the discussions on drug policies internationally.

In a resolution titled Contribution to the implementation of the joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem with regard to human rights, the Human Rights Council (HRC) of the United Nations made an unexpected step ahead in the discussions on drug policies at the international level.

On March 16th, 2018, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) central legislative UN body in charge of drug-related matters, failed for the first time in 72 years to reach the consensus needed to go ahead normally with its work. Just 5 days later, as if taking advantage of this situation, the HRC adopted also as a premiere (and with a large majority), a resolution that seriously increases its role and involvement on the areas of drug policy, that mandates its Commissioner for a proactive attitude in defense of human rights, and that clearly calls for an appraisal of the prohibitionist era.

Member States votes on the «drug policy» resolution L41 during the 2018 session of the Human Rights Council.

What is happening?

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will start to consult States, UN agencies, civil society and all relevant stakeholders. His goal will be to produce before the end of the year, a report evaluating the impact on Human Rights of the 2009-2019 UN plan of action on drugs.

The report will be presented to the HRC at its upcoming session, but also to the CND for the occasion of its upcoming extraordinary session in 2019. In this regard, the HRC insists on the importance to be given to that report during this 2019 special CND.

Besides, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is reinforced in his mandate to poke his nose in the so-called «world drug problem» and to evaluate the human rights implications of the drug policies that have been enforced during the past decade.

Why is it important?

Until recently, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights institutions were kept away from the discussions on global drug policies. De facto, the topic of human rights was poorly addressed, if not forgotten, in the Vienna-based UN drug control organs. The UN General Assembly world drug forum (UNGASS2016) held in New-York 2 years ago has been the first opportunity for UN agencies focused on health, development and human rights to get heard about their views on the impact of drug control on the international community’s overall goals of peace, security, enhancement of human rights and sustainable development. With this resolution, the HRC and the Commissioner are definitely entering the game, and do not seem to be willing to leave.

The last session of the CND, held mid-March 2018, was a deceiving failure in terms of diplomacy, with an unusual blockage that reflects the inextricable level of tension that characterizes the work of the CND along recent years. Next year indeed, the decade-long UN plan of actions on drugs will end. This plan was initially launched in 1998 with a strong anti-drug and repressive approach. Beside tiny superficial changes, the plan of action has been renewed, and continuously enforced since that date.

Reason and general practice in the United Nations would lead to think that in 2019, as the plan of action comes to an end, its evaluation would be undertaken on one side, and the redaction of a new plan of action would be endeavored, on the other hand, taking into consideration lessons learned from the previous plan. But although the CND managed to agree last year on convening a special meeting in 2019 to mark the occasion, this year they did not even manage to find consensus on the format, agenda, content, outcome, and any organizational arrangements of that 2019 extraordinary session.

For lack of consensus and depletion of its internal tensions, the traditionally repression- and criminal justice-led CND will take a back-seat at its 2019 session, and let the High Commissioner’s and other UN agencies’ reports and inputs be given a critical part.

Extract from the resolution L.41 of the 2018 session of the Human Rights Council:

The Human Rights Council,

Guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, […]

Reaffirming also the universality, interdependence, indivisibility and interrelatedness of human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and consequently elaborated in other human rights instruments,

Recalling in particular that the Human Rights Council has the mandate to, inter alia, promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without discrimination of any kind and in a fair and equal manner, to serve as a forum for dialogue on thematic issues on all human rights, and to promote the effective coordination and mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system, […]

Requests the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report, in consultation with States, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and other United Nations agencies, civil society and other relevant stakeholders, on the implementation of the joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem with regards to human rights, and to present it to the Human Rights Council at its thirty-ninth session, and also requests the Office of the High Commissioner to share the report with the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, through the appropriate channels, as a contribution to their work in this field and in preparation for the sixty-second session of the Commission;

Encourages the UN High Commissioner for human rights and the relevant international human rights mechanisms to continue, within their respective mandate and through the appropriate established channels with the Commission on Narcotic drugs, their contribution to addressing the human rights implications of the world drug problem;

Invites the Commission on Narcotic Drugs to take into account the contribution of the Human Rights Council, in particular during the ministerial segment of the sixty-second session of the Commission in 2019, in accordance with relevant rules of procedure and established practices.

The Human Rights noose
tightening around the CND.

Everything began with the work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, when preparing their Contribution to the UNGASS 2016 summit. Broad consultations were undertaken among Member States, UN agencies, international organizations and NGOs from around the globe (read here all the submissions), resulting in a report titled «The impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights«, targeting for the first time the huge cross-cutting issues and tensions between both thematic areas.

More recently, the OHCHR took the initiative, in its global update about human rights concerns in the planet, to «urge[s] all States to examine the effectiveness and human rights impact of their current approaches to the so-called ‘War on Drugs’«.

The 12th of March, for the opening session of the CND, the theme of Human Rights was heavily introduced by a video statement from UN Chief: Antonio Guttierez, the UN Secretary-General, called for «efforts to stop organized crime while protecting human rights, enabling development, and ensuring rights-based treatment and support», and took the opportunity to recall that he had been the main instigator of the decriminalization of drug use in Portugal, in the early 2000’s (a policy that has shown its effectiveness in more than 15 years of enforcement). A few months ago, in June 2017, just after taking office, Guttierez already reminded that it was «vital [to] examine the effectiveness of the War on Drugs approach, and its consequences for human rights».

During this year’s CND as well, the UN Development Program (UNDP) recalled the commitment of countries to «ensure that drug control efforts be conducted in full conformity with the aims and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights». Moreover, UNDP concretely proposed the creation of international guidelines on human rights and drug control, ensuring that such guidelines would «help provide guidance on how to systematically integrate a human rights framework into international drug control» and «strengthen accountability» among other.

Last but not least, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) also started on the path to mainstreaming Human Rights considerations in their approach. The INCB calls itself the «guardian of the drug control Conventions» and has been known for its narrow reading of international law, sticking to a drug control system that would only be framed by the 3 drug-Conventions. Still, their annual report presented the 1st of March, ahead of the 2018 CND, dedicated a «Special topic» to this question, taking note of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They confirmed what we exposed last year in a conference held during the 2017 CND: hierarchy of norms often puts Human right obligations over and above drug control conventions, and bind countries to take steps that mitigate the impact of drug laws on Human Rights (including, as explained in the video, decriminalizing the use, or regulating safe access for medical purposes, and for recreational purposes under certain conditions and in certain cases). Following the steps of Guttierez, the president of INCB Dr. Viroj Sumyai «call[ed] upon all States to adopt drug policies that respect the rule of law, the principle of proportionality and human rights« in its opening address to the CND. Unexpectedly, the head of this historically most conservative international drug control entity directly challenged the world governments, stating that «during this session of the Commission, and in [their] resolutions, [they] also have the opportunity to reaffirm that actions taken in accordance with the spirit and letter of the international drug control conventions must also be consistent with international human rights standards and norms«. This unfortunately remained as nothing more than a pious hope, as the CND – we saw it – did not manage to agree on anything in that direction.

However, notwithstanding the inertia of the CND, everything is moving around it, and these movements won’t stop.

Based in the Vienna UN headquarters, the UN drug control organs (CND as the legislative body, UNODC as its executive branch, and INCB as the freelance guardian of the untouchable Conventions) have managed to keep away from the values that are at the core of the philosophy of the United Nations: Peace, security and human rights. Meanwhile, all of the Human Rights, Development, Health, Peace or Security-related organs of the UN have been based and working in Geneva or in New York, the two other main UN HQs. This state of fact has maintained global drug policy discussions isolated and shielded.

But that was until March 2018. Now, the «world drug problem» finally concerns and commits the whole UN family. Now, the global drug policy discussions will finally incorporate the broad diversity of disciplines and mindsets that its complexity calls for.

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