Human Rights and Drug Policy

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed
with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

– Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Human Rights for all


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is more than 70 years old. It was announced by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948. It is a milestone in human history and says: human rights are entitled to every individual, simply because he or she is a human being.
Unfortunately, this is not reality in many parts of the world. Drug control efforts often lead to serious human rights violations: torture and mistreatment by the police, mass arrests, extrajudicial killings, years of imprisonment and death sentences for suspected drug users or micro-dealers as well as the refusal of basic health care for people who urgently need medical help happen on a daily base.

Death penalty in more than 35 countries

Although the death sentence for drug offences is a violation of international human rights norms, it is still part of the legal order in at least 35 countries. Access to appropriate treatment, harm reduction measures and protection against new HIV and hepatitis infections is only available to a fraction of people who use drugs worldwide.

Collateral damage

Human rights violations can also occur in the implementation of programmes designed to discourage farmers from growing illicit drug crops. If drug plants are destroyed without alternative sources of income being created, the farmers affected are in existential need. Because chemical means are often used to eradicate illegal plants, massive and lasting damage is done to people and the environment. Such measures deprive people of their basic rights to food, to clean water and to health.

Human rights are fundamental for development

Human rights are the basis for a dignified and equal life, the framework of an open and free society in which sustainable development is possible. They apply equally to all people without exception. Today they are legally binding in a number of international and regional treaties. The United Nations call on its member states to conduct drug control efforts "in full conformity" with internationally agreed human rights principles. This conduct is based on the three UN drug conventions. The international control system should address the challenges of the international drug economy and complement rather than counteract the human rights obligations of states. The final document of the United Nations Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) 2016 included for the first time in history an independent chapter on human rights in drug policy. The protection of human rights is a prerequisite for German development policy and fundamental to Germany's drug policy at the international level.

Alternative Development strengthens human rights in drug cultivation areas

A development-oriented drug policy shapes economic alternatives to drug crop cultivation from the beginning, as pursued by the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), grants people a simple but good life and thereby a long-term perspective for the future.

The aim is for farmers in the affected cultivating regions to leave the status of extreme poverty behind them: This means that they are able to eat an adequate and balanced diet, that they have access to land and to health care and that their children must be able to attend school. These are essential factors for the sustainable success of Alternative Development. Close involvement of local people and a gender-sensitive design of measures are essential.

GPDPD for human rights in drug policy

Governments often lack the knowledge and experience to better focus their drug policies on the rights of all affected people. On behalf of the BMZ, GPDPD together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Swiss Foreign Ministry, supported the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy at the University of Essex in formulating International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy for the period 2017-2019. The guidelines were drafted to provide guidance to governments in reforming their drug policies and in legally resolving conflicts between the UN human rights and drug control regimes. They give concrete form to drug control obligations on the basis of internationally applicable human rights.

Novelty: International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy

In March 2019, these guidelines were presented to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). Marlene Mortler, the Federal Government's Drug Commissioner in office at the time, introduced the guidelines with the following words:
"Respect for human rights is a prerequisite for a balanced, health-oriented and human-centered drug policy. (...) This applies to all areas of drug policy: be it access to medical care, non-discrimination and non-stigmatization, fair trials or the appropriateness of penalties."

The link between rural development, drug cultivation and human rights is one of the core issues. The human rights demand for health, infrastructure and education programmes within the framework of Alternative Development projects reinforces the BMZ's approach, which goes beyond the cultivation of drug crops and focuses above all on the root causes.

Participation of all affected groups

Stakeholders from different areas of the drug economy were involved in the preparation process of the guidelines: people who cultivate illegal plants, people who use drugs, jurists, representatives of non-governmental organisations as well as governmental and international organisations. In this way, the opinions and needs of affected groups were taken into account and the basic human rights principles of participation, transparency and non-discrimination were ensured. It was also important that representatives from as many countries as possible were involved. This was ensured by three regional consultations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The next step is to make the guidelines known throughout the world and to support interested states in their transformation into national laws and strategies.

The International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy are available here.

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