Undermining human rights

The human rights of drug users and local farming communities growing drug crops are rarely even mentioned in political discussions, whether at the domestic or UN level.

Yet in many countries, drug control efforts result in serious human rights abuses: torture and ill treatment by police, mass incarceration, executions, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and denial of basic health services.

Poorly scrutinised drug control policies and enforcement practices often entrench and exacerbate systematic discrimination against people who use drugs, impede access to essential medicines, and prevent access to harm reduction and HIV treatment services for marginalised high-risk populations.

Young people in particular, as both a key using group, and vulnerable population more broadly, have suffered a disproportionate burden of these human rights costs.

Local communities in drug-producing countries also face violations of their human rights as a result of campaigns to eradicate illicit crops, and related criminalisation of certain indigenous cultural practices.

Up to 1000 people are executed for drug offences each year, in direct violation of international law

Between February and April 2003 there were 2,819 extrajudicial killings under the banner of the Thailand Government’s ‘War on Drugs’ crackdown

Over 500,000 people are arbitrarily detained in drug detention centres in China – frequently subject to forced labour, and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment

The War on Drugs: Undermining Human Rights.


Some human rights are absolute and many of the abuses documented in this briefing are inexcusable, regardless of the context in which they take place, or the aims pursued. These include freedom from torture, execution and arbitrary detention, and there are many clear-cut examples of drug policies or practices violating these rights.

Some other rights, such as the exercise of indigenous and cultural rights, may be lawfully restricted. But this poses a crucial question for the current drug control system. The test for when restrictions on human rights are permissible does not and should not lie in drug control legislation or policies. It lies in human rights law. Broadly, any restriction on human rights must be prescribed by law, in pursuit of a legitimate aim, and be proportionate to the aim pursued.

The question is rather simple: If a law or policy cannot achieve its aim, or has proven incapable of doing so over a considerable length of time (in this case 50 years), then can the restrictions on human rights that stem from it ever be proportionate and therefore permissible?

In considering this question, the seriousness of the restriction (which varies depending on the right and individual circumstances), its breadth (in this case global and applicable to everyone), and its duration (in this case perpetual) will be key, but must be balanced against other concerns. Drug use, and the policies and laws devised to address it, impact on a wide range of policy arenas (see www.countthecosts.org), but like all areas of domestic and international policy, the driving consideration should be the promotion of the UN’s three pillars – human rights, human development and human security. In drug policy, however, these goals have been marginalised by the threat-based rhetoric of the drug war, and the failed and counterproductive interventions that have flowed from it. 

What is abundantly clear is that human rights will always suffer in a war zone. But it is also clear that the war on drugs is a policy choice. There are other options, including decriminalisation and models of legal regulation, that, at the very least, should be debated and explored using the best possible evidence and analysis.

We all share the same goals – a safer, healthier and more just world. It is time for all sectors affected by our approach to drugs, and particularly those concerned with human rights, to call on governments and the UN to properly Count the Costs of the War on Drugs, and explore the alternatives.

NOTE: Excerpt from the website and a large file available also from the page concerned.


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