11 April 2023


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On 4th April 2023, The Human Rights Council concluded its 52nd Session (27 February – 4 April). This briefing highlights key debates, decisions and documents in which drug control and its impact on human rights were analysed and addressed.


On 4 April, the HRC adopted the resolution (A/HRC/52/L.22/Rev.1) on “Human Rights Council contribution with regard to the human rights implication of drug policy”, being the third resolution adopted by the HRC on this matter, after a first one in 2015 (A/HRC/RES/28/28) and a second one in 2018 (A/HRC/RES/37/42). The resolution was adopted by the Council without a vote, meaning that for most countries the text of the resolution is now an agreed language.

The resolution, which includes – for the first time – explicit reference and support to harm reduction, requests the OHCHR to prepare a report, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and other relevant UN agencies, civil society and other stakeholders, on human rights challenges in addressing and countering all aspect of the drug problem, and to present it to the HRC at its fifty-fourth session and, and in the mid-term review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the policy-making body of the UN with prime responsibility for drug control, which will take place in 2024.

The resolution reaffirms member’s States commitment to uphold human rights for all on the development and implementation of drug policies and abide with international agreements on that matter, calling on UN States Members to consider alternatives of incarceration, conviction and punishment. The resolution also contains relevant commitments to address racial discrimination, gender violence and discrimination in all stages of the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of drug policies and programs. It consolidates the precedent set by the UNGA resolution 77/238 by recognising the rights of indigenous people to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices.

HRI and other organisations actively participated in the informal negotiations and debates on the draft resolution. More information on the resolution can be found here.


The High-Level Panel was a pivotal moment to reflect upon the human rights violations related to the use of the death penalty while exchanging best practices and reflecting on new pathways towards abolition. Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, and the Chairperson of the Working Group on Death Penalty, Extrajudicial or Arbitrary Killings and enforced disappearances in Africa, Idrissa Sow, reiterated the UN position on the death penalty as incompatible with human rights in all circumstances and called on States that have not yet done so to restrict the use of the death penalty, establish moratoriums and work towards its abolition; and urging governments to collect, analyse and make available public data on the use of death penalty and actual effectiveness.

Mr Türk also reiterated that working to address inhumane punishment and promoting the abolition of the death penalty is a priority for the OHCHR and the UN system. Both remarks also recognised that capital punishment continues to be used in crimes that do not meet international law’s threshold, including drug-related offences, being disproportionately used against racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities and the LGBTQI-plus community.

Following the opening remarks, panellists highlighted key challenges and good practices regarding the limitation of the use of the death penalty and pathways for abolition. Azalina Othman, Minister of Law and Institutional Reform of Malaysia, analysed the steps taken by the country to limit the use of the mandatory death penalty and the contribution of civil society to achieve that, while Sarah Belal, Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan, highlighted Pakistan pathway towards limiting the use of death penalty in practice and making reforms towards abolition. Jose Manuel Santos Pais, member of the Human Rights Committee, reflected on the need to uphold international law and principles and make a restrictive interpretation of what can be considered serious crimes for the application of death penalty, while Mai Sato, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law at Monash University, stated that out of seventy-nine retentionist countries, only two comply with international law. The panellists also raised concern about 35 countries retaining the death penalty for drug offences, which do not meet the most serious crimes threshold.

The dialogue also featured notable interventions by states, including Belgium, Australia and the EU who condemned the use of the death penalty for drug offences and other crimes that do not meet the international threshold of most serious crimes while urging retentionist states to abolish the death penalty and ratify the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). From civil society, Harm Reduction International (HRI), among others, raised concerns about the alarming sharp increase in execution for drug offences, calling on states to comply with international obligations and abolish the death penalty.


During his oral update on the activities of the Office and recent human rights developments, the High Commissioner of Human Rights expressed his concern for police repression and killings in drug-related operations still happening in the Philippines, sustaining that his Office is working with actors to strengthen accountability and promote human rights in drug enforcement. While Mr Türk commended the acquittal of human rights defenders, he highlighted the need to end politically motivated charges and create a safer environment for civil society.


The Special Rapporteur, Mr Javaid Rehman, presented his report (A/HRC/52/67) on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in which he expresses his concern for the alarming upsurge in executions in the country, with at least five hundred executions as of December 2022, the highest recorded in the past five years. Mr Rehman paid particular attention to the resumption of public executions, the continuous execution of persons sentenced to death as child offenders and the exponential increase in the number of executions of drug offenders, with at least 222 people executed in 2022. He also expressed concern for the disproportionate use of the death penalty against persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, with at least 147 Baluchis (who represent between 2 and 6 per cent of the total population) reportedly executed, representing 30 per cent of all executions, and more than half were executed on drug-related charges.

Among the report’s recommendations, Mr Rehman calls on the concerned States to immediately abolish the death penalty for all offences and impose an immediate moratorium on executions, including for drug offenders and commute all death sentences; protect the rights of all persons belonging to ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, as well as to ensure that human rights defenders, lawyers, journalist are not threatened with or subjected to harassment, violence, arbitrary arrest, deprivation of liberty or life or other arbitrary sanctions and immediately release all those arbitrarily detained or arrested.

The Interactive Dialogue also heard statements from NGOs, including a joint statement by HRI, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, Capital Punishment Justice Project (CPJP), Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation, ECPM, HIV Legal Network, IDPC and World Coalition Against Death Penalty, which highlighted the disproportionate use of the death penalty for drug offences, the limited access to information and transparency issues by the government and the failure of the international community to take meaningful actions against blatant violations of international standards.

The Special Rapporteur’s mandate was extended for another year (resolution A/HRC/52/L.3), who will have to submit a report on the implementation of the mandate at the fifty-fifth session of the HRC and to the General Assembly (UNGA) at its seventy-eighth session.


The High Commissioner presented his report (A/HRC/52/25) on the Situation of Human Rights in Colombia, which welcomes the State’s steps to reform rural and drug policies towards a more social, health focus and human rights-based approach in line with the Peace Agreement. The report notes that these developments could be instrumental in better protecting the rights of peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and people who use drugs, both in Colombia and globally. Additionally, the OHCHR highlight the need to prioritise economic, social, and cultural rights, including the State’s commitments in the Peace Agreement on comprehensive rural reform and drug policy. In turn, Colombia welcomed the OHCHR’s report and reiterated the government’s commitment to putting people at the centre of drug policies to advance their economic, social and cultural rights, which involves moving away from criminalising producers and consumers to directing enforcement efforts towards the big beneficiaries of the business, in combination with market regulation. Colombia also called on the OHCHR and the international community to support human rights-based drug policies.

The general debate also featured relevant remarks from the NHRI, Defensoría del Pueblo Colombia, and NGOs such as Peace Brigades International and Acción Colombia, who expressed concern for the high rates of murders and attacks against human rights defenders and the persistent impunity of perpetrators and forced displacements.


In light of the 47th UPR session, the outcomes of several countries were adopted, with some specific recommendations on drug policies:

  • Bahrain received a recommendation (124.87) to abolish the death penalty for, among others, drug crimes.
  • WhileIndonesia noted recommendations related to the abolition of the death penalty, including for drug offences (140.84, 140.85,140.86), it sustained that the application of the death penalty is an attribute of sovereignty. Indonesia further recognises that, according to its new Penal Code, ”the death penalty  should only be imposed with alternative sentencing with a high degree of commutation.”
  • India noted all recommendations related to ratifying the Second Protocol of the ICCPR, the imposition of a moratorium on the death penalty and reforms towards abolition.
  • The Philippines presented its final responses and actions on the 89 remaining recommendations arising from its 4th cycle UPR on 14 November 2022. Among the 15 recommendations accepted, the Philippines committed to implementing a National Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists (146.72), National Preventive Mechanism (146.46, 146.47 and 146.49) and a human rights approach to the strategy against illegal drugs (146.52).However, the country noted other recommendations (146.21, 146.22, 146.23, 145.29) oriented to implementing human rights-based drug policies and respecting international human rights law in efforts to combat trade in and use of the illegal drug; recommendations (145.33 to 145.44) that urge for the maintenance of the abolition of the death penalty recommendations (145.48, 145.56) calling on the compliance with international obligations under the Second Protocol to the ICCPR, and the conduction of independent, impartial and effective investigations on extrajudicial killings and torture during the so-called war on drugs.

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