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Time to Face Up to One of the Key Human Rights Challenges of Our Time

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In 2010 an article appeared in an Irish newspaper referring to a group of people as 'vermin'. 'Worthless', 'feral', 'useless scumbags', who, if they all died tomorrow, would cause the author to cheer. In the meantime he called for them to be sterilised.

Can you guess which group? In Nepal there are signs from local authorities allowing members of the public to beat them up. In Viet Nam, China, Laos, Cambodia and other countries being a member of this group or even being suspected of it can lead to months or years of detention without trial. In the US, pregnant women who are members of this group give birth shackled to beds. In some countries being a member of this group means you have to be entered onto a government registry.

This is the policy context in which millions have been imprisoned for non-violent offences, and racially biased policing has gotten worse. It is responsible for the majority of death sentences in certain countries, with executions carried out to mark the special UN observance of its goals.

It is an area of policy where even a prominent UN agency will refuse to condemn torture and 'atrocities' committed in pursuit of those national and international goals.

It requires the eradication of religious, cultural and indigenous practices and customs. It contributes to billions of people in the poorest countries lacking access to essential medicines. It is responsible for massive human displacement and irreparable damage to the second most biodiverse region in the world. It is driving HIV epidemics, fuelling corruption and funding civil conflict.

It is systemic and systematic abuse akin to the war on terror.

The 'vermin' were people who are drug dependent, or 'junkies', as the columnist preferred to call them. The UN body is the International Narcotics Control Board. The UN celebration is international day against drugs, June 26th.

Today, human rights day, it's time to recognise drug control as one of the key human rights challenges of our time.

Twenty years ago the international community adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, a landmark document creating the UN human rights office and requiring the mainstreaming of human rights throughout the UN system. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in her human rights day message "The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action crystallized the principle that human rights are universal. It committed States to the promotion and protection of all human rights for all people, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems."

But for decades drug control has existed in a vacuum from human rights, shielded from scrutiny to the extent that the UN itself it complicit in the abuses stemming from it.

Ironically the UN drug control machinery is based in Vienna. It was 2008 before a human rights resolution was adopted at the UN drugs commission and even then only agreed when reference to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the death penalty and indigenous peoples rights were stripped from the text. So much for mainstreaming.

Five years after the Vienna declaration there was a UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs which set the goal of a 'drug free world' by 2008. The outcome document, like so many since, adopted the language of threat and fear that characterises national approaches to drugs, while human rights were paid lip service.

But what are the human rights costs of meeting this perceived threat? If drugs threaten humanity and the fabric of society, as international agreements so continuously state (including one in draft right now), then what will states justify to 'combat' this particular 'evil'?

See above.

And of course hundreds of billions of dollars are needed, including millions from international donors thrown at some of the most abusive regimes in the world to help them in their drug control efforts (though some government have started withdrawing).

In 2016, almost a quarter of a century after the Vienna Declaration and over half a century after the adoption of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, there is a chance to change direction. A second UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs has been scheduled, pressed by Latin American governments that can no longer tolerate the death toll and damage to human security the current system has generated.

At the 2016 summit human rights must be central to any evaluation of the drug control system. As usual many states will resist and will claim that human rights are not relevant to drug control. This is false. They will claim that this 'politicises' a technical issue. It's already political (and not very technical because of that).

But what they won't say is that a human rights based approach to drug control would require utterly transforming what's gone before, and that, more than anything, is the real reason why they'll resist.