Around the world, people have experienced one of the most widespread and shameful human rights failures of our time—the global war on drugs. Barely a day passes without some tragedy or abuse fuelled by misguided drug policies hitting the headlines. Day by day, the costs of the war on drugs are tallied in the suffering, death, and missed opportunities across the entire drugs market chain, from production to use.
Today, 70 years to the day since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we might pause to reflect on the totality of these daily injustices. Decades of experience tells us that on this day, we have a crucial question to ponder about our approach to drugs: what do we value more, living up to the promise of the Universal Declaration or chasing the illusion of a “drug-free society”?
We can’t have both. For far too long political expediency, blinkered ideology, and a failure of imagination have led us along the second path, paved by the economic and racial inequities within which the war on drugs flourishes. It’s time for a fundamental change, beginning with our shared commitment to universal human rights and allowing responsible and humane drug policies to flow from them.
There are existing political commitments to this effect. For more than a decade, governments convening at the United Nations have affirmed their commitment to ensure that drug control efforts are conducted in full conformity with universal human rights. But there are too few countries committed to putting this promise into action. Too often governments have placed other political concerns above the realization of people’s rights in drug policy and not placed sufficient political capital on the line to affect change. So, we have the typical gap between lip service and action.
In August the world mourned the death of a true global Statesman, Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General. In 1998 my late friend and fellow Commissioner did not question the idea of a “drug free world” as Secretary General, but by 2016 he had the courage to publicly recognise that this was the wrong approach and to campaign for change. Indeed, among his numerous concerns and global engagements, he embarked on yet another noble mission: eradicating the scourge of drugs and human rights abuses that occur on a large scale when States opt for misguided policies and strategies. In 2006, he challenged us to conclude the “era of declaration” in human rights and to usher in “an era of implementation”.
As we enter 2019, and another high level UN summit set for March, I believe we have reached an important political moment to advance implementation of human rights in international drug policy. There are enough governments now asking the important questions about their own drug policies and about joint international efforts. Enough governments are willing to lead by example and challenge the status quo with innovative harm reduction, a focus on development over repression, and even with a paradigm shift towards regulatory reform.
But to date we have lacked the tools to translate universal rights into the specific context of drug control. Since 2016, however, experts from around the world have been developing a comprehensive set of standards applying decades of human rights law to drug policy. Co-ordinated by the UN Development Program and the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, the project has brought together lawyers, public health professionals, development experts, government officials, and grassroots activists representing the groups most affected by drug prohibition.
The result is the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy, which will be presented to governments at the summit in March 2019. I urge them to look closely. These guidelines represent a benchmark against which to assess drug policies, rooted in the universal human rights framework, and at a time when the war on drugs consensus is truly broken.
There is no magic bullet that will guarantee that everyone affected by drugs and drug policies can live a safe and healthy life in dignity. There is, however, a desperate need for innovation and change, grounded in something shared and fundamental. Drug policies are, after all, only policies. Let these policies bend to our commitment to human rights, not the other way around. And let the vision of the Universal Declaration illuminate the way. The vision of a “drug free world” has only led to darkness.
Jose Ramos-Horta is former President of Timor-Leste, member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Nobel Peace Prize laureate