The Human Rights Costs of the War on Drugs

Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU)
Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), together with Transform Drug Policy Foundation, were among the NGOs launching the Count the Costs campaign to urge governments to evaluate the impacts of the 50 years old UN drug control system. This campaign movie highlights one of the most compelling issue, the human rights impacts of the global war on drugs (read Transform's report on the human rights costs).

Last year the Pompidou Group, an advisorybody of the Council of Europe, organized a meeting in Budapest on drugpolicies. Beside European governmental and NGO representatives, theorganizers sent an invitation to the US State Department to participatein the conference. However, unlinke its European allies, the USgovernment refused to come. Why? Because human rights issues were on theagenda. For people who do not know the history of the internationaldrug control system this seems to be a very contradictory view: the sameUS government that claims to lead the world on building consensus onfreedom and democracy denies the legitimacy to discuss drug policies inthe context of human rights.

Even the first UN drug convention, adopted 50 years ago in 1961, placed the protection of the right to health in its centre. Now, 50 years later, we witness terrible human rights abuses in the name of drug treatment all over the world: public executions and labour camps in Asia, denial of the right to effective treatment in Russia, eradication campaigns leading to humanitarian and ecological crisis, disproportional sentences, racial discrimination and overcrowded prisons in the US.

Human rights are equal, inalienable and universal. Someone cannot be deprived of her human rights because she prefers to use some mind altering substances that are listed among the illicit drugs. The criminalization of drug users is a violation of the right to privacy in itself, not to mention the institutional discrimination and segregation of drug users by the public health system.

If you mention human rights in the context of the war on drugs the US government labels you as a legalizer and accuses you of giving up the idea of protecting the kids from the harmful consequences of drug use. Human rights abuses are no acceptable, they say, but still, they are the prize to maintain the system of prohibition that, in the end, protects our kids and families from suffering. This is a very comfortable theory but there is a minor problem with it: it does not work.

The global war on drugs built on the UN drug conventions generates much more suffering than it prevents. It created a huge black market, bigger than that of human trafficking and arms trafficking. This black market is not only the source of a yearly 300-400 billion USD income for organized crime groups, terrorists and paramilitants, but maintains civil wars and blocks the development of economies and democracies. There are other feasible alternatives of total prohibition than total liberalization. Alternatives that place human rights and public health in the centre of drug policies.