A group of women in a prison in Costa Rica
Worldwide, a substantial proportion of women in prison are incarcerated for low-level, non-violent drug offenses. These women are in Costa Rica’s Buen Pastor prison. Photo: Washington Office on Latin America

“Stand up for human rights” – the theme of this year’s International Human Rights Day – should resonate with Member States that have committed to strengthen cooperation to implement the drug control treaties in accordance with their pledge to “leave no one behind”.

Harsh drug control efforts entrench and exacerbate systemic discrimination against the poorest and most marginalized. They can affect the health and rights of people and entire communities. They can impede access to treatment and lifesaving health services, dramatically increasing the risk of HIV and viral hepatitis among people who inject drugs. Crop eradication campaigns have ruined livelihoods, caused physical and environmental harm and displacement. The population of women imprisoned for drug-related offences is on the rise.  When women go to prison, their infants and young children may join them, though basic services, including food, may not be provided. The multifaceted nature of the threat requires a multi-sectorial response. Only an integrated agenda that combines human development, security, governance, public health and human rights can effectively address the complex challenge of drugs and transnational crime.

As pointed out in the 2017 Report of the Secretary-General on the work of the United Nations, the UN continues to support rights-based drug policies and capacity-building for increased access to services, including for HIV. UNDP’s focus on sustainable human development contributes to addressing both the causes and consequences of the market in illicit drugs, by helping build more effective governance institutions and improving the lives of the poorest and most marginalized communities.

At the 2016 special session of the General Assembly on the world drug problem, UN Member States reaffirmed that “countering the world drug problem” requires a comprehensive approach that address public health, development and human rights concerns alongside law enforcement aspects. This message was emphasized on this year’s International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. UN Secretary-General  António Guterres stressed the need to chart “a new path forward that is more effective and humane, and leaves no one behind”.

UNDP is supporting the development of guidelines on human rights and drug control, together with the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy (HRDP), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). This initiative follows up on the recommendations from the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, convened by UNDP on behalf of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), which called for human rights-centred reform of drug law and policy.  These guidelines come at a time when human rights and public health are at the forefront of drug control policy reform discussions and engages Member States, UN entities, civil society, academics, and affected communities (people who use drugs, indigenous people, people who cultivate illicit drug crops).

In June 2017, UNDP and HRDP convened the first global consultation on developing international guidelines on human rights and drug control in Bogotá, Colombia. Former Colombian President César Gaviria and the Minister of Justice, Enrique Gil Botero, who opened the consultation, highlighted the need for evidence, health and human rights-based drug policies and the importance of the participation of indigenous people, farmers and consumers in their development.

Participants discussed health and human rights consequences of criminalization of drug use and possession and forced eradication. They explored alternatives to punitive approaches, such as decriminalization of personal use and possession and alternatives to incarceration for minor drug-related crimes.  As the UN Secretary-General has noted, there is flexibility in the drug conventions to permit these steps. Clarifying human rights requirements in the context of drug control is critical to provide guidance to policymakers to design and implement drug control policies that conform to these obligations.

Addressing the destructive impact of illicit drugs and repressive drug policies on human development, specially affecting vulnerable and marginalized groups and communities, requires investing in public health, gender equality and economic development. The 2030 Agenda provides an opportunity to move towards more effective, evidence-based and rights-based solutions for reducing drug-related harm.  UNDP supports UN Member States to deliver on the pledge to leave no one behind and address the needs of those left farthest behind first. We are pleased to be working with partners to support the development of guidelines that can be an important tool to pave the way for truly human rights-based drug control – and a fitting way to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


About the authors

Boyan Konstantinov is a policy specialist in HIV, Health and Development with the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support at UNDP. Follow Boyan on Twitter: @BoyanKonst

Rebecca Schleifer is a consultant in HIV, human rights and the law for the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support at UNDP. Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @BeccaSchleifer

UNDP Around the world