Human rights and drug policy

Why upholding human rights is indispensable for a sustainable drug policy

Serious human rights violations are common in the fight against illegal drugs: torture, mass arrests, extrajudicial killings, years of imprisonment without trial and death sentences for suspected drug users or micro-dealers, denial of basic rights – to name but a few. We need to rethink international drug policy. Safeguarding human rights is a basic prerequisite for development. If they are not respected, there can be no sustainable changes.

Only a fraction of all people using drugs worldwide has access to appropriate treatment, Harm Reduction measures, and protection against HIV and hepatitis infections. Although the death penalty for drug-related offences contravenes international human rights norms, it is still part of the legal order in place in at least 35 countries.

Human rights, a collateral damage

Even national government strategies to combat illicit drug crop cultivation can result in human rights violations. If the state destroys the only livelihood of poverty-stricken families, they face destitution. Moreover, chemicals that damage people and the environment are often used for the eradication of drug crops. These measures then have the effect of denying the affected individuals basic rights such as food, clean water and health.

No sustainable development without human rights

But since human rights are the very foundation of a dignified life, with equal rights, as well as the pillar of a free and open society and the basis for sustainable development, they are the fundamental requirement for Germany’s development policy. This also applies to the development-oriented drug policy advocated by Germany at international level. The United Nations call on the Member States to ensure that efforts to control drugs are ‘in full conformity’ with internationally agreed human rights principles. The Outcome Document of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 2016) dedicated an entire chapter to human rights in drug policy for the first time.

Alternative development strengthens human rights

The development-oriented drug policy, which embraces economic alternatives from the outset, as advocated by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), gives people long-term prospects of a better future. The aim is to help farmers in illicit drug crop cultivation areas to leave poverty behind and enable them to attain an appropriate standard of living through their own efforts. This includes an adequate and balanced alimentation, having access to land and health care and their children being able to attend school. The close involvement of the local population is pivotal, as is the gender-sensitive design of measures.

Long overdue: a body of rules and regulations

Governments often do not know how exactly they can align their drug policy with human rights. The International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy provide guidance in this area. The guidelines, drawn up by the University of Essex’s International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, were developed with the support of the Global Partnership on Drug Policies and Development (GPDPD) on behalf of the BMZ, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. The guidelines set out in detail drug control obligations on the basis of international human rights and are a novelty in international drug policy. In March 2019, they were presented to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna. The human rights-based call for health, infrastructure and education programmes within the framework of sustainable development projects reinforces the BMZ approach, which focuses not only on the cultivation of drug crops, but above all on its causes.


Participation of all affected groups

Different stakeholders were involved in developing the guidelines: small-scale farmers, people who use drugs, legal experts, representatives of non-governmental organisations and of state and international organisations. In this way, different opinions and needs were taken into account, and the essential principles of participation, transparency and non-discrimination upheld. It was also important to involve representatives from as many countries as possible. This was achieved by holding three regional consultations in Africa,  Asia and Latin America. The next step will be to publicise the guidelines worldwide and help interested countries transpose them into national legislation and strategies.


You can view and download the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy here.