Undermining human rights

Click the image to the right to view the Count the Costs human rights briefing.

The human rights of drug users and local farming communities growing drug crops are rarely even mentioned in political discussions, whether at the domestic or UN level. Yet in many countries, drug control efforts result in serious human rights abuses: torture and ill treatment by police, mass incarceration, executions, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and denial of basic health services.

Poorly scrutinised drug control policies and enforcement practices often entrench and exacerbate systematic discrimination against people who use drugs, impede access to essential medicines, and prevent access to harm reduction and HIV treatment services for marginalised high-risk populations.

Young people in particular, as both a key using group, and vulnerable population more broadly, have suffered a disproportionate burden of these human rights costs.

Local communities in drug-producing countries also face violations of their human rights as a result of campaigns to eradicate illicit crops, and related criminalisation of certain indigenous cultural practices.

  • Up to 1000 people are executed for drug offences each year, in direct violation of international law(1)
  • Between February and April 2003 there were 2,819 extrajudicial killings under the banner of the Thailand Government’s 'War on Drugs' crackdown(2)
  • Over 500,000 people are arbitrarily detained in drug detention centres in China – frequently subject to forced labour, and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment(3)

"The current international system of drug control has focused on creating a drug free world, almost exclusively through use of law enforcement policies and criminal sanctions. Mounting evidence, however, suggests this approach has failed ... While drugs may have a pernicious effect on individual lives and society, this excessively punitive regime has not achieved its stated public health goals, and has resulted in countless human rights violations."

Anand Grover, UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, 2010.



(1) Gallahue, P. and Lines, R., ‘The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2010', 2010.

(2) Barrett D, et al, 'Recalibrating the Regime: The Need for a Human Rights-Based Approach to International Drug Policy', p.25, 2008.

(3) Human Rights Watch, 'Where darkness knows no limits: Incarceration, Ill-Treatment and Forced Labor as Drug Rehabilitation in China', 2010.