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1st ‘Brandenburg Forum’ (BBF) in Geneva
“Building Bridges between the drug policy and human rights regimes of the United Nations”

Opening remarks by Ms. Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

Excellencies, Distinguished participants,

I am pleased to join you today at the opening of the first Brandenburg Forum in Geneva.  

I thank Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and other co-organisers for organizing this virtual event. 

A year into the COVID-19 crisis, countries across the globe continue to face alarming levels of pressure on their health and social services.  Inequalities and poverty have further deepened with devastating impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised individuals and communities.

In his Policy Brief on Human Rights and COVID-19, Secretary-General António Guterres recognised the vulnerability during this pandemic of people who use drugs.1 Millions of people have been adversely effected in accessing vital and lifesaving harm reduction programmes as health systems have become overwhelmed by the pandemic.  

A recent global report on harm reduction, however, shows that COVID-19 also resulted in some positive changes, with harm reduction services quickly adapting to altered conditions. The most profound example of this was the change in opioid agonist therapy delivery.2 

The continued existence of compulsory drug detention centres, where individuals are detained without due process in the name of “treatment” or “rehabilitation”, remains a serious human rights concern. They face higher vulnerabilities, including HIV, TB and now COVID-19, as a result of sub-standard living conditions, including massive overcrowding and related challenges in maintaining physical distancing. 

Last summer, twelve UN agencies – including OHCHR- called on States that operate compulsory drug detention centres to close them permanently without further delay as an important additional measure to curb the spread of COVID-19.3

Dear Colleagues, 

The COVID-19 crisis occurs in the context of a long-standing general crisis of the global prison situation, now exacerbated by the current public health emergency. Over 11 million people are currently imprisoned globally. Data also shows 20% percent of the global prison population are detained for drug offences, including non-violence minor offences and drug use,4 making drug policy a significant driver of over-incarceration.

A large number of those behind bars are awaiting trial, and some of them have been in pre-trial detention for years. The drastic rise in the number of women in prison globally is disturbing. Such increase is mainly due to women being convicted of minor drug-related offences.

Criminalization of drug use often results in disproportionate sentencing in addition to hindering persons in need of treatment for drug use from receiving such treatment.  It also aggravates the stigmatization of and discrimination against them.

Another long-standing human rights concern is the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses. A wide range of drug-related offenses are punishable by death in over 30 states, which is contrary to international human rights law.5 The United Nations opposes the death penalty everywhere and in all circumstances. There is a clear international trend towards abolition. At the end of last year, 123 States voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution for a moratorium on use of the death penalty.

Data and experience over a number of decades have clearly shown that the many attempts across the globe to conduct “war on drugs” have failed to eliminate the illegal drug trade and its use. The harmful, long-term consequences of these ‘wars’ are deep and far ranging, involving increased violence and a myriad of human rights violations . Such approach undermines the ability for the public health system to address the problem. 

Globally, people of African descent face discrimination at every step of the law enforcement and the criminal justice system. They are more likely to be apprehended, searched, arrested, convicted, and harshly sentenced to death penalty for drug crimes. The UN Working Group on Experts on People of African Descents viewed that “the war on drugs has operated more effectively as a system of racial control than as a mechanism for combating the use and trafficking of narcotics.”6   Countries must redress racial discrimination in drug law enforcement. 

Addressing impunity for serious human rights violations in the context of so called “war on drugs” remain critical challenge to ensure justice for thousands victims of these wars.

Dear Colleagues, 

We are holding this virtual event in the midst of COVID-19 – a time that has made science and evidence more important than ever– indeed a principle that should also be the basis for global drug policies.

Already five years ago, at UNGASS20167 , all member States committed to ensure that all aspects of drug policies are evidence based and addressed in full conformity with international human rights law.8  

With the generous support of Germany and Switzerland, and in the spirit of inter-agency cooperation, our Office partnered with UNDP, WHO, UNAIDS and the International Centre at the University of Essex to develop the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy, which was launched in March 2019 in Vienna.

The Guidelines is the best tool at our disposal to support States in the implementation of their human rights commitments of UNGASS 2016. Two regional dialogues were organised on the Guidelines in 2020. We have seen examples of positive impact of the Guidelines at national level. For example, the Constitutional Court in Colombia has cited the Guidelines twice; in 2019, in a decision regarding substance use and human rights and last year, in a landmark case on crop eradication with glyphosate. We must continue promoting and disseminating the Guidelines at the global, regional and national levels.

These guidelines are based on practices and jurisprudence of UN human rights treaty bodies and special procedure mandate holders of the Human Rights Council. Over the years, these human rights mechanisms played crucial role in addressing drug policy related challenges affecting the enjoyment of a range of human rights. I am pleased that some of these human rights mechanisms are represented at this virtual forum. 
In 2015 and 2018, upon requests of the Human Rights Council, our Office prepared two reports on human rights and drug policy ahead of the UNGASS 2016 and the 2019 Ministerial High Level Meeting of CND respectively. 9 A periodic report on best practices and challenges in the implementation of human rights commitments of the UNGASS 2016 and the 2019 Ministerial Declaration could be useful tool for States and other stakeholders.  

Dear Colleagues, 

In 2018, thirty-one principals of UN entities adopted a UN System Common Position to provide coordinated support to States in drug related matters.10   Through a public health and human rights lens, the Common Position provides guidance for actions, including shifting drug policies and interventions toward a public health approach and ensuring respect for human dignity and human rights. The Common Position provide us a framework to work together to ensure that no one is left behind, including in the drug control context.  

As example, I wish to refer to our recent efforts in the Philippines where, pursuant to the Human Rights Council’s resolution 45/33 adopted last October, the design of a UN joint programme on human rights is currently being finalized. 

Developed jointly with UNODC and other UN partners, it includes a component on human rights-based approach to drug control and draws on relevant guidance set out in the Common Position. We also continue to monitor the human rights situation, and remain concerned by the continued high number of drug related killings.

As emphasized in the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, it is our common responsibility to put human rights at the center of all policy and decision-making processes. This includes, of course, those related to drug control. 

We have no doubt that principled and comprehensive policies which respect dignity, development, human rights and justice will reduce both demand and supply of drugs; protect health; and contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

Our Office stands ready to work with all stakeholders in this endeavor. 

I wish a successful discussion today. 

Thank You.

[2] https://www.hri.global/files/2020/10/27/Global_State_of_Harm_Reduction_2020.pdf

[3] https://unaidsapnew.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/unjointstatement1june2020.pdf

[4] https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Global-Prison-Trends-2020-Penal-Reform-International-Second-Edition.pdf

[5] General Comment 36, Human Rights Committee

[7] The  United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem 2016

[8] The Outcome Document of UNGASS 2016, General Assembly resolution S-30-1, annex. 19 April 2016

[9] A/HRC/30/65, A/HRC/39/39