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Pike, Brigid (2008) Human rights and illicit drugs policy. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 27, Autumn 2008, pp. 11-12.

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The year 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as the conclusion of the UN’s 10-year action plan on drugs. Several international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have taken the opportunity to set out their policy positions on the relationship between human rights and drug control, as has the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the central policy-making body of the UN in drug-related matters. There has been some debate on the relationship between the two policy domains in Ireland.

 International NGOs
The International Drug Policy Consortium has called for the drug control agencies to clearly condemn any activities undertaken in the pursuit of drug control that contravene international human rights and judicial standards.1 The International Harm Reduction Association has gone further, calling for international human rights commitments and obligations to be used to support the promotion of harm reduction programmes and the rights of people who use drugs to respect and dignity.2 The Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme has highlighted the inconsistencies and contradictions between the international human rights and drug control systems, and has called for greater system-wide cohesion.3 The authors note that the human rights obligations imposed on UN bodies and member states in the UN Charter override any conflicting obligations in any other international agreement.
Commission on Narcotic Drugs
In March 2008, at the 51st session of the CND, which saw the launch of the year-long review of  the UN 10-year action plan, the CND passed a resolution reaffirmingthat countering the world drug problem must be carried out in full conformity with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and other provisions of international law and, in particular, with full respect for, among other things, all human rights and fundamental freedoms, and on the basis of the principles of equal rights and mutual respect.4
The Working Party on Drug Abuse, which reported in 1971, is the only body tasked with developing national policy on illicit drugs in Ireland to have explicitly mentioned the rights of the drug user: in the context of supply reduction measures, the working party commented that there should be ‘no undue interference with the freedom of the individual as far as any changes in procedures relating to search and arrest’ (para. 3.2).5  In the mid 1990s Tim Murphy, in a critique of Ireland’s prohibitionist drug policy, commented that ‘another highly significant social cost of drug prohibition is the abuse of civil liberties which inevitably accompanies the active criminalization of basically “victimless” conduct’ (p. 54).6 He cited the discussion in the Government strategy to prevent drug misuse (1991) about the detention of individuals suspected of concealing drugs in body cavities, and the provision for seven-day detention for suspected drug dealers in the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act 1996, as examples of ‘active criminalisation’. In a recent publication, in which he makes a case for the abolition of drug prohibition in Ireland, Paul O’Mahony argues that individuals have a right to use drugs.7 Far from promoting a laissez-faire approach to this human right, O’Mahony argues that implementation of this right would bring two sets of gains – ‘negative’ gains by eliminating or at least diminishing the ills associated with prohibition, and ‘positive’ gains by changing the relationship between citizens and the state, and thereby strengthening the impact of drug education, treatment and social relations.
In 2007, in a report released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the UDHR, the Irish section of Amnesty International assessed the ‘reality’ of human rights in Ireland.8 The report described how Ireland has championed human rights on the international stage but identified areas at home where the Irish state ‘has not respected, protected or fulfilled all rights or the rights of all’ (p. 1). The report suggested that these gaps were the result of the state’s failure to follow human rights principles in its planning and decision-making processes. While drug users were not included among the ‘vulnerable groups’ considered in this report, drug use was mentioned as an exacerbating factor among those experiencing human rights violations because of imprisonment or homelessness. Amnesty International concluded its report with a series of recommendations on how Ireland could move towards a human-rights-based approach in its social and economic policies.
In 2007 the Irish Human Rights Commission announced in its strategic plan for 2007–2011 that, as well as continuing to review relevant legislation, its strategic focus would now be to influence policy formulation and legislative drafting at an earlier stage than hitherto:9  ‘The Commission believes that by encouraging Ministers and civil servants to place increasing emphasis on human rights at policy development and “heads of bill” stages, it can be more productive and efficient in shaping relevant sections of legislation’ (p. 22). (Brigid Pike)
1. International Drug Policy Consortium (2008) The United Nations review of global policy on illegal drugs – an advocacy guide for civil society. Version 3. Retrieved on 5 August 2008 at http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/united-nations-review-global-policy-illegal-drugs-advocacy-guide-civil-society.
2. Lines R and  Elliott R (2007) Injecting drugs into human rights advocacy. Editorial. International Journal of Drug Policy (18/6): 453–457.
3. Barrett D, Lines R, Schleiffer R, Elliott R and Bewley-Taylor D (2008) Recalibrating the regime: the need for a human rights-based approach to international drugs policy. Report Thirteen. The Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme. Retrieved on 5 August 2008 at http://www.beckleyfoundation.org/
4. Commission on Narcotic Drugs (2008) Report on the fifty-first session (28 November 2007 and 10–14 March 2008). Economic and Social Council Official Records, 2008, Supplement No. 8. E/2008/28, E/CN.7/2008/15. Retrieved on 5 August 2008 at http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/commissions/CND/session/51_Session_2008/CND-51-Session_Index.html
5. Working Party on Drug Abuse (1971) Report of working party on drug abuse. Dublin: Stationery Office. Retrieved on 5 August 2008 at https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/5154/
6. Murphy T (1996) Rethinking the war on drugs in Ireland. Cork: Cork University Press. p. 54
7. O’Mahony P (2008)The Irish war on drugs: the seductive folly of prohibition. Manchester: University of Manchester Press.
8. Amnesty International–Ireland (2007) Mind the gap: human rights and human dignity in Ireland. Retrieved on 5 August 2008 at http://www.amnesty.ie/
9. Irish Human Rights Commission (2007) Promoting and protecting human rights in Ireland: strategic plan 2007–2011. p. 22. Retrieved on 5 August 2008 at http://www.ihrc.ie/
Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 27, Autumn 2008
Page Range
pp. 11-12
Health Research Board
Issue 27, Autumn 2008
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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