It Is Time to End the Global ‘War on Drugs’

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ historic position on human rights challenges related to drug policies

Human Rights Council

A landmark report was published on 20 September that will mark a turning point in UN drug policy debates –  Image: ceiling of the ‘Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room’ (UN, Geneva)  by Miquel Barceló, photo by Maina Kiai, licence CC BY 2.0


In response to the Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution with regard to the human rights implications of drug policy, adopted last April, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was mandated to prepare a report in consultation with States, relevant UN bodies and civil society for submission to the 54th session of the HRC (Dianova participated in this consultation and our recommendations are quoted in the report).

The OHCHR report, entitled “Human rights challenges in addressing and countering all aspects of the world drug problem” was presented on September 20th at the 54th session of the UNHRC. Dianova’s representatives were present.

The  22-page report provides an overview of the international legal and policy framework and a description of the main challenges that have been identified by experts and in UN documents, before shedding light on recent positive developments in drug policy debates. The report ends with a series of conclusions and recommendations geared towards a paradigm change towards a human rights- and public health-based perspective.

Looking ahead, a roundtable is scheduled to be organized before the 55th intersessional meeting of the HRC. This report will also be a key contribution to the review process of the implementation of the Ministerial Declaration scheduled for March 2024.

Key human rights challenges

The report presents various drug policy-related appreciations and recommendations issued by UN agencies and official UN documents on the following issues:

  • The lack of and unequal access to treatment and harm reduction
  • The “war on drugs” and the militarization of drug control
  • Overincarceration and prison overcrowding
  • Use of the death penalty for drug offences
  • Disproportionate impact on specific groups: people of African descent, children and youth, indigenous peoples, and women
  • Persistent and emerging challenges: in crisis settings, and the right to a healthy environment.
March of cannabis legalization

The overly punitive laws for drug offences had many negative consequences, including overloading criminal justice systems, and fuelling prison overcrowding – Image: New York NY USA-May 4, 2013 Advocates for the regulation of cannabis, photo: Shutterstock

Conclusions and recommendations

Based on the above, OHCHR proposes a series of 22 recommendations that mark a clear commitment to bring the ‘war on drugs’ and its associated discriminations and human rights violations to an end. These recommendations are grounded in a human rights and public health perspective. Some of the most relevant, as they appear in the report, include:

  • Adopt alternatives to criminalization, “zero tolerance” and elimination of drugs, by considering decriminalization of usage; and take control of illegal drug markets through responsible regulation, to eliminate profits from illegal trafficking, criminality and violence;
  • Consider the specific needs and possible vulnerabilities of women drug offenders when prosecuted and imprisoned, in line with the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders;
  • Adopt gender-sensitive drug policies that respond to the specific needs of women, and remove legislation that makes drug use a justification for removing children from their parent’s custody or that aims to punish women for using drugs during pregnancy;
  • Meaningfully engage civil society organizations, people who use drugs, affected communities and youth in the design, implementation and evaluation of drug policies, to ensure that their knowledge and experiences are considered;
  • Incorporate and fund harm reduction services, and support community-led advocacy and harm reduction services;
  • Address the underlying socioeconomic factors that increase the risks of using drugs or that lead to engaging in the drug trade, by tackling social inequalities, promoting social justice and advancing human rights;
  • Ensure that law enforcement in drug control efforts is fully consistent with States’ human rights obligations; and ensure that drug law enforcement is primarily reserved for civilian law enforcement agencies, properly trained, and equipped to allow for a differentiated use of force in accordance with international norms and standards;
  • Universally abolish the death penalty for all crimes, including for drug-related offences;
  • Include relevant aspects of drug policy in reports to human rights mechanisms, and Sustainable Development Goals-related reports, and implement the recommendations of these mechanisms, and ensure the consistent incorporation of human rights in the work of international drug control mechanisms;


Dianova’s point of view

Dianova welcomes the fact that human rights organizations are approaching the issue of drug policies from a human rights perspective, and that concrete actions are being taken. This is also a decisive period in terms of advocacy, given the forthcoming review of the commitments included in the Ministerial Declaration.

We welcome the clear commitment to put respect for human rights at the forefront and to turn our backs on punitive drug control policies. It will be interesting to see how the recommendations are received at the level of Member States and other UN bodies such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

The recognition of the lack of treatment and harm reduction services as a major challenge to the enjoyment of human rights, and the emphasis on the need to ensure voluntary treatment, accountability systems and support for reintegration services is a major step forward. However, we regret that the recommendations do not explicitly mention the need to strengthen treatment systems.

We believe though that some recommendations should have been better documented at the beginning of the report (e.g. regulation of drug markets, withdrawal of custody of children, etc.).

With regard to the recommendation on the regulation of drug markets, this is an issue that is not specifically developed in the report, and it will be interesting to see how it is incorporated and explained in subsequent discussions. In any case, it should be noted that the OHCHR suggests looking at the possibilities for regulation, not regulation as such. Like it or not, this is a reality that is experienced in different parts of the world and of which the United Nations should be able to debate freely and undogmatically. This is why Dianova is glad to see this debate begin, as it will enable progress to be made towards an integrated, more humane approach to drug policies.

We hope that the publication of this report and the ensuing debates will lead to an honest and open discussion on how to proceed to protect people’s rights and place them at the centre of policies. It is time to move away from harmful and ineffective approaches.