The war on drugs is a war on human rights

New report from Amnesty International on drug war in Cambodia
James Nicholls, Chief Executive Transform
Friday, May 15, 2020

human rights are not optionalOne of the most appalling aspects of the war on drugs is that it can legitimise not just human rights abuses, but a complete rejection of human rights as a principle.  The degree to which this perverse reality has been normalised was made clear in a recent statement by the Cambodian Ministry of the Interior, responding to a new report from Amnesty International. When it is an anti-drug campaign,’ the spokesman said, ‘there is never a respect for human rights.’ He went on to say that during an anti-drugs campaign ‘human rights need to be put aside, so it is clean’. Let that sink in for a moment.

In some respects, we all know that this is the reality on the ground. From the mass incarceration of people involved in drugs in the United States, to the thousands of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, drug prohibition has a corrosive effect on human rights.

The United Nations recognises this fact. A 2019 report from the UN Systems Coordination Task Team was explicit that ‘abusive, repressive and disproportionate drug control policies and laws are counterproductive, while also violating human rights, undercutting public health and wasting vital public resources’. In the same year the new international guidelines on human rights and drug policy set out a framework for reducing the harms current policy creates.

But there remains something chilling whenever we hear governments making the case against human rights so starkly, because they do so in the knowledge that the dehumanisation of people who use or supply illicit drugs is legitimised by prohibition. The world over, regimes know that if they want to ignore human rights without sanction, then clamping down on drugs provides the necessary cover.

For that reason, we are delighted that Amnesty International published this report – and , in doing so, has taken a firm stance against global prohibition. The report lays out in detail the horrors inflicted on Cambodian people under the guise of a drugs clampdown. It makes for difficult reading, and sadly we know that what it documents is mirrored in the Philippines and many other countries. As long as the green light for abuse is provided by prohibition, these are precisely the grim effects we can expect.

From the perspective of drug policy reformers, it may seem odd that Amnesty has not taken such a clear position sooner. However, it perhaps reflects the extent to which human rights abuses are so normalised by prohibition that, hiding in plain sight, even leading human rights groups haven’t always addressed the connection. Amnesty stepping so firmly into this arena will undoubtedly go a long way to changing that.

Today’s report is absolutely clear. It states that ‘the “war on drugs” has effectively been a war on people, in particular the poorest and most marginalised sectors of society, and has undermined the rights of millions of them.’ It goes on to say that ‘Years of evidence from countries in every region of the world undercut the logic of the “war on drugs” and has contributed to the current shift in understandings of drug policy.” The message is clear and unambiguous: the war on drugs is a war on human rights.

There are now no major human rights agencies that support, or remain silent on, the disaster of drug prohibition. It should no longer be possible for anyone to overlook the human rights consequences of the system as it stands. Whatever arguments may be made in support of current drug laws, those making them need to accept that a fundamental cost of prohibition is the corrosion – and sometimes eradication – of human rights principles.

If that is a reasonable price to pay in pursuit of a ‘drug-free world’ (or rather, a world free of drugs that are currently prohibited), then proponents should be explicit in saying so and in justifying their view. We think that price is beyond justification, and applaud Amnesty International for making it clear they feel the same.