Human rights and drug control

Monday, March 10, 2008
One of the most debated issues at the 2008 Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) was a resolution entitled “Proper integration of the United Nations human rights system with international drug control policy”. It was introduced by Uruguay with the co-sponsorship of Bolivia, Argentina and Switzerland. The first resolution of its kind at CND, it recognised the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (an event being celebrated throughout the UN system during 2008) and affirmed "that international drug control activities must be conducted in conformity with international human rights law".

Many participants stressed that drug control policies should be in line with international human rights standards. In that connection, they considered the issue of the death penalty, used by some countries against drug offenders. However, it encountered fierce opposition. "Discussion of political issues such as human rights are inappropriate at CND," the delegate of China said. Joining China in opposing even consideration of the resolution were Pakistan, Japan, Nigeria, Iran and Thailand. The Netherlands delegation noted that the issue of human rights was "Important enough for Executive Director Costa to bring it up in his opening speech, so I see no reason why we should not discuss it here."

Cuba ensured that a specific statement against the death penalty for drug offences was removed from the draft before it even reached the debate. Thailand worried that discussion of human rights was the job of the UN in Geneva (where the human rights offices are located) rather than Vienna (where CND meets). The Thai delegation stated that "If we bring in the issue of human rights within CND, it will disrupt the tradition of consensus decision-making within the Commission." And it nearly did. >It was a grand finale Friday night where Uruguay in the late hours threatened to break the consensus spirit in Vienna and call for a vote. Then, around 9 pm (the CND meeting was supposed to end at 6 pm), China offered a compromise that was accepted.

In the end the title was changed to: "Strengthening cooperation between the UNODC and other UN bodies, including the human rights agencies in accordance with Article 2 of the 1998 UNGASS Political Declaration". The operative paragraph, the core of the resolution was changed into: "Requests, in furtherance of this resolution, the UNODC within its existing mandate to continue to work closely with competent UN organs including UN human rights agencies."

The result is a very watered down resolution. Nevertheless, it was the first time ever the tensions between drug control and human rights were on the CND agenda. It marks an important precedent and should be expanded in the next CND session, despite the opposition and difficulties encountered. A similar resolution should also be introduced at the UN Human Rights Council.

For a more indepth story on the discussions, see: “Discussion of political issues such as human rights are inappropriate at CND” – China leads charge against human rights resolution at the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA) blog.

See also: The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: A Violation of International Human Rights Law, by Rick Lines, HR2 Report, December 2007