Why UNDP needs to get its act together on human rights and the pursuit of the war on drugs. Written by: Eliot Ross Albers Executive Director, International Network of People who Use Drugs
Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), recently conducted an interview with Reuters in Mexico in which she made a number of very welcome statements on the failures of the current global drug control regime. It is especially appropriate that she should make such comments, considering that last year her agency commissioned the Global Commission on HIV and the Law to publish a report – ‘Risks, Rights and Health’ - that made a series of strikingly progressive recommendations on the need for a thorough overhaul of global prohibition. Subsequently the UNDP Secretariat issued a highly problematic statement claiming that Ms. Clark had been misrepresented, and that went on to take a position that directly undermined the findings of the report, and so called into question UNDP’s understanding of the conflict between the current drug control regime and human rights norms.
Ms. Clark’s comments align well with the tone and evidence-based findings of the Global Commission’s report in three key areas. Firstly, she argued that “the health position would be to treat the issue of drugs as primarily a health and social issue rather than a criminalized issue”, the report similarly called upon countries to “reform their approach to drug use. Rather than punishing people who use drugs who do no harm to others, they must offer them access to effective HIV and health services”. Secondly, she stressed that “[o]nce you criminalize, you put very big stakes around. Of course, our world has proceeded on the basis that criminalization is the approach,” which again reiterates the report’s finding that criminalizing drug use is bad for society at large and encourages “the spread of HIV and keep[s] users from accessing services for HIV and health care”. Thirdly, Ms Clark welcomed the recent moves towards drug law reform in several Latin American countries, noting: “the approach being followed has failed so we need a fresh set of eyes on this as well. And I think the debate going on at the regional level is a very, very useful one”. This third point backed up one of the most important recommendations made by the Global Commission’s report, which called upon countries to “review and reform relevant international laws and bodies […] including the UN international drug control conventions” and, very significantly, “the International Narcotics Control Board”.
Where I had so welcomed Ms. Clark’s remarks which had so strongly reiterated the message conveyed by the report of the Global Commission, my disappointment at the subsequently published retraction from the UNDP secretariat (UNDP Sets Record Straight on Drugs Debate) was especially acute. The retraction is problematic not least because it appears to set UNDP’s official position on drug policy in direct opposition to that set out in the Global Commission’s report, a report that was based on extensive research and global consultations and which is in line with public health, human rights and with international development imperatives.
The most glaring conflict between the UNDP retraction and the report of the Global Commission is the statement that “UNDP shares the view that existing drug-control treaties are among the best available tools for addressing the world drug problem and for protecting humanity from the suffering caused by drug abuse and its impacts, such as drug-related crime and violence, of trafficking and of the illicit cultivation and production of drugs”. Yet the Commission’s report found that the treaties, and specifically the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), far from being “the best available tools for addressing the world drug problem”, are instead the very sources of those drug-related harms and problems. The Commission stresses that these controls and criminalisation are themselves the drivers of the human rights abuses and public health problems to which people who use illegal drugs – particularly those who inject – are systematically subject.
The explicit endorsement of “the position of the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB)” is perhaps the most problematic statement contained in the retraction, not least because within the UNAIDS partnership, UNDP has specific responsibility for, and is the lead agency on, human rights. Given the atrocious human rights record of the INCB and the UNDP’s position as the lead agency on the subject, this raises a whole series of problems in addition to the fact that the retraction now positions the UNDP in direct conflict with the position of the report of the Global Commission.
And why is endorsing INCB so problematic? In recent years INCB has consistently failed to condemn human rights atrocities – including torture and the death penalty – carried out in the name of drug control. Specifically, during an INCB country visit to Saudi Arabia in 2012, a man was executed on a minor drugs offence. Yet the INCB praised the Saudi government in its annual report for their “commitment” to drug control, making no mention of the beheading that occurred during its visit, nor indeed of the 16 or more other executions carried out in the country in the same year, most of them similarly for minor drugs offences. As Harm Reduction International(HRI) have repeatedly pointed out in their continually updated Death Penalty Reports, the use of the death penalty for drugs offences is a clear violation of international law, and a systematic result of the punitive approach to drug control that Ms. Clark so clearly condemned in her interview. More than just omission, the INCB has regularly praised governments such as that of Thailand, whose pursuit of punitive approaches to drug control have systematically breached human rights, most gruesomely in the form of a wave of extrajudicial killings that led to almost 3,000 deaths in 2003, as well as the operation of detention camps masquerading as treatment facilities. With regards these killings in 2003, the INCB report noted that “killings had taken place during the “war on drugs” and it wished to gather comprehensive information regarding the campaign and the measures and action that had subsequently been taken”; nowhere, however, were these killings – that had resulted from the war on drugs the INCB so endorses – condemned.
In addition to remaining silent on gross human rights abuses committed in the name of drug control, the INCB has chosen to condemn countries that have led in innovation on comprehensive harm reduction measures, precisely the measures recommended in the report of the Global Commission. Specifically, the INCB in its most recent report condemned both Canada and Denmark for opening supervised injecting rooms, claiming (in my opinion, quite incorrectly), that they were at odds with the drug control treaties. With this record, it is no surprise that the Global Commission should have specifically identified the INCB as in need of reform.
Helen Clark’s courageous comments deserve our support, and it is regrettable (though perhaps unsurprising) that her own Secretariat do not feel able to provide theirs.
Eliot Albers; Exec Dir, INPUD