When the UN Won't Condemn Torture You Know Something's Very Wrong

Torture. The Home Office can't deport Abu Qatada because of the very spectre of it. There is an entire international treaty on it. It is a crime no matter who you are or where you live.

Torture. The Home Office can't deport Abu Qatada because of the very spectre of it. There is an entire international treaty on it. It is a crime no matter who you are or where you live. Torture is so reviled, and rightly so, that its prohibition has a status in law higher than any national law or international treaty. No torture, no torture, no exceptions.

So, when the UN's drugs watchdog, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), was asked recently about its official position on torture carried out in the name of drug enforcement, one would have expected an unequivocal denunciation. Instead, what was given was an unequivocal refusal to do so.

In the light of documented cases of torture to extract information from suspects and to punish drug users and those convicted of drug offences, this refusal to condemn the most egregious of human rights abuses is cause for serious concern and highlights clear tensions between the UN human rights and drug control regimes.

The INCB is a quasi-judicial mechanism in the UN that oversees the implementation of the three international drugs conventions - the legal bedrock of the global drug control system.

Launching its flagship annual report in Thailand (the headlines focused on the Board's concerns about internet pharmacies) the INCB was apparently asked for its view on of the deputy prime minister's plans to cut appeal processes in order to speed up the executions of some 245 people on death row for drugs in the country.

The INCB member present refused to comment, deferring to national law and policy.

This struck many as odd. As a quasi-judicial entity, one would have expected the INCB to know that the death penalty for drug offences is not permitted in international law. Or that the UN Human Rights Committee, another UN quasi-judicial mechanism which oversees the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, had already called for its abolition in Thailand. Apparently not.

In response to emails and letters of concern, the INCB said that criminal sanctions are the 'exclusive prerogative' of States.

Just over a week ago in the margins of the annual UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), when pressed again on the death penalty, the President of the INCB - Professor Hamid Ghodse - again restated the official position. Such matters, he said, are not within the mandate of the INCB as the drug treaties do not specify which sanctions are ok and which ones are not.

So came the obvious question: 'Legal sanctions in different countries include... extrajudicial killings, torture - there is no atrocity large enough that you could possibly step outside your mandate and say something?'

With this question the INCB was presented with the logical conclusion of its position thus far. And when torture is presented you expect an immediate condemnation, especially from the United Nations grounded as it is in human rights. What Professor Ghodse said was: "No. 100% not. Because, just basically, we are not there to express our opinion."

So, what will the International Narcotics Control Board, a quasi-judicial UN entity, tolerate when it comes to human rights abuses committed in the name of drug enforcement?

The official answer appears to be anything. Executions, torture - no comment.

Of course, Professor Ghodse was quick to say that the INCB does not condone these practices. But this is a far cry from condemning them, and when it comes to human rights commentary, the INCB's record is already poor.

Aerial fumigation of illicit crops with herbicides in Colombia, one of the most biodiverse countries on earth, has been praised by the INCB while being criticised by multiple UN human rights monitors because of the effects on health, the environment, and human displacement.

Military-style raids in Brazilian favelas and Mexicos 'war on drugs' have been applauded by the INCB, while the body count of such measures hits the headlines.

The INCB has refused, in the face of clear opportunities, to condemn drug detention centres in various South East and East Asian countries where literally tens of thousands of people are detained without due process and beaten, forced to work and otherwise abused for months and sometimes years. Conversely, twelve UN agencies from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to the International Labour Organisation have called for such centres to be closed down.

The INCB has praised Russia's drug policies in the midst of the government's belligerent refusal to tackle HIV/AIDS among injecting drug users with proven harm reduction measures such as clean needles and syringes and methadone. There are almost two million injectors in Russia, with around a million living with HIV.

These various positions of the INCB are seriously problematic, but the recent refusal to condemn torture and 'atrocities' is obviously nonsensical and comes across more as defensive posturing in the face of sustained criticism of the UN drug control regime within which the Board plays a central role than a sincerely held belief about the limits of its mandate.

Indeed, that human rights seems such a clear point of discomfort for the INCB, even when it comes to something as clear cut as torture, says as much about the board's competence (which must now be in question), as its does about the unavoidable human rights consequences of drug enforcement, and clear tensions within a UN system acting as guardian for both.


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