UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV & Human Rights

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May 2015

UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights as input to the study currently being conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the impact of the world drug problem on human rights.  This study will be the primary contribution of the Human Rights Council to the UNGASS on Drugs.

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I. Introduction

For over a century since the Shanghai Opium Commission of 1909, which laid the groundwork for the International Opium Convention of The Hague of 1912, governments have used harsh application of criminal law, military and para-military interventions, and stigmatizing public information about drugs and people who use them in the futile pursuit of a “drug-free world”. The “war on drugs” has been responsible for systematic human rights violations wherever it has been waged, including mass incarceration for minor, non-violent infractions; extra-judicial killing of civilians by criminal networks that run drug markets; denial of life-saving health services for people who use drugs; and destruction of the livelihoods of people in regions where drug crops are grown.

In spite of this high cost, the UN’s own evidence suggests that there has been no lasting reduction in supply of or demand for illicit drugs as a result of the drug war. There is widespread agreement, including among many member states of the United Nations, as well as UN technical agencies and other experts, that drug-war “business as usual” must end. It would be very useful for the Human Rights Council to call for reform of repressive, human rights-unfriendly drug policies as the world prepared for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in April 2016.

We thank the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for the opportunity to comment on these issues. While the purview of the UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights is human rights issues related to HIV, we see the many human rights violations associated with repressive drug policy to be very closely related. This paper summarizes our principal concerns, offers recommendations for policy reform, and includes a list of more detailed readings on these issues.

II. Drugs, criminal justice and human rights

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as well as UNAIDS, WHO and the Global Commission on HIV and the Law (of which UNDP was the secretariat), have called for states to regard use of illicit drugs as a public health problem to be managed in the health sector rather than by law enforcement or criminal justice officials. Nonetheless, the penal codes of many countries impose harsh custodial penalties for use of drugs and/or possession of small quantities of drugs for individual use, sometimes with mandatory minimum sentences that limit judges’ discretion. As a result, minor drug offenses account for a large percentage of the populations of prisons and pretrial detention facilities.

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