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Drugs

United Nations Officials Are Worried that the UN's Drug Policy Is Leading to Executions

We spoke to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health about his concerns for the basic rights of people caught up in the drugs trade.

by Sirin Kale
Dec 16 2015, 9:30pm

Heroin seized in Afghanistan. Photo via ResoluteSupportMedia

Last week, Dainius Pūras, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, released a statement expressing concern that UN policies were leading to drugs executions and human rights violations. Pūras called on Yury Fedotov, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), to do more ahead of the UN Special Session on Drugs, to be held in April 2016.

In recent months three special rapporteurs have released separate statements expressing concern about how the UNODC is cooperating with repressive regimes such as Pakistan and Iran.

Activists have long called on the UN to stop funding anti-drug programs in countries such as Iran and Pakistan. Although the UNODC (which leads the UN's efforts on drugs policy) publicly opposes the use of the death penalty for drug trafficking, it funds and provides other resources to anti-trafficking operations in countries which execute drug mules, thereby indirectly contributing to a large number of deaths.

In some instances, UN-led cooperation could be actively enabling death sentences for drug offenders. Human rights groups such as Reprieve have linked UNODC programs to over 3,000 Iranian executions.

The UNODC is funded by major European countries including the UK, France, and Ireland. However, following pressure from human rights groups, the UK now only provides for the general administrative funding and no longer directly supports anti-narcotic initiatives in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

To find out more about how the UN might be contributing to drug executions, and about the failure of drugs policies in general, we spoke to Dainius Pūras.

VICE: Thanks for talking to us. Why should we abolish the death penalty for drug offenses?
Dainius Pūras: It's not just about the right to health, which is my mandate as a Special Rapporteur. It's about the right to life. It's clear to me that we cannot go on like this.

Abolishing the death penalty for drugs offenses has been recommended many times by other experts—such as the Human Rights Committee and other special rapporteurs. The reason is evidence-based. Societies and governments can't be effective when they induce fear in their citizens. Telling people that "if you get involved in drugs, you'll be executed" isn't an approach that works. It's naive to think that such measures work.

Have the actions of the UNODC directly contributed to drugs executions?
On a general level, if the whole field is dominated by punitive measures, then indirectly a message gets sent to governments. And this message is that the most effective way to deal with drugs is to be as harsh as possible. This becomes contagious, as one country copies another.

So what would be a better approach to drugs policy?
My dream is that countries base their drugs policies on an evidence-based approach that prioritizes human rights and public health. As opposed to irrational fears and ideologies.

What would a public health approach to drugs policy look like?
Unscientific policies create a threat to society in general. For example, not having needle exchanges causes increased HIV/AIDS rates. So by humiliating and excluding drug users, we create this atmosphere of intolerance, of saying there are good members of society and bad members of society. And that's no way to reach our UN Development Goals, like the goal of an inclusive society. If we start to scapegoat and humiliate our own citizens, we declare a civil war on our own populations. This isn't me moralizing, it's a public health approach.

According to Reprieve, Iran is using drugs charges as a pretext to execute political prisoners. Is this a concern?
Punitive approaches can create an opportunity to use drugs issues as an excuse—for violating the human rights of people who are opposed to the government's policies.

In October 2015 the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Rapporteur on Summary, Extrajudicial, and Arbitrary Executions put out a joint statement which said, "International agencies, as well as States providing bilateral technical assistance to combat drug crime, must ensure that the programs to which they contribute do not ultimately result in violations of the right to life." The implication seemed to be that the UNODC is not doing that. Do you share their concerns?
I put out my statement ahead of the UN Special Session on Drugs. I'm concerned we're going to miss this once-in-a-generation opportunity to have a real paradigm shift. It's not just about the death penalty. The death penalty's the tip of the iceberg. It's about the war on drugs, which has turned into a war against the most vulnerable people in our societies, drug users. It's my duty to inform the UN that we have to stop and rethink and move towards other practices.

Is decriminalization the answer?
Yes, of course, although it's not the only solution.

You know, in these countries that aggressively go against drug users, they don't invest in promoting the emotional and social wellbeing of children. It's seen as a luxury, you know? And it's so paradoxical, because then these adolescents have emotional problems, which leads them to become drug users. They don't invest in prevention, but they adopt punitive measures against their citizens. As a healthcare professional, I'm always surprised when people think violence can solve problems. You cannot be effective if you humiliate people and use force.

What do you think about the current human rights situation of drug users?
What I see now as a Special Rapporteur is that countries aren't applying basic principles that were approved in 1948 when the UN was established. There's this tendency to forget human rights and go back to these regressive, traditional family values.

When we tolerate forms of violence towards the most vulnerable groups in our society, we're at risk of forgetting what happened in the 1940s with Nazi Germany. I think this is very concerning particularly when we look at drug policies. The war on drugs was initially established with drug dealers. But what's happened now is that it's turned into a war against drug users.

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