Special rapporteurs are appointed by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and are mandated by the United Nations to "examine, monitor, advise, and publicly report" on specific human rights issues – often relating to a specific right. And in a new paper published this month, the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health, Dainius Pūras, made yet another important contribution to the drug policy debate, stating:
“The Special Rapporteur recommends that Governments seek alternatives to punitive or repressive drug control policies, including decriminalization and legal regulation and control, and nurture the international debate on these issues, within which the right to health must remain central.”
This is the latest in a series of important statements on drug policy reform and human rights by Pūras. He has previously provided a detailed and devastating critique of the negative human rights impact of the war on drugs to inform the recent UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs, which substantially shaped the outstanding official UNGASS submissions from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In the UNGASS reports, the Special Rapporteur and High Commissioner had both made a powerful argument that criminalisation of people who used drugs was a violation of state obligations to the right to health. But this new document goes further, welcoming and encouraging the debate on alternatives to prohibition and specifically calling on member states to explore alternatives including regulation and control of currently illegal drugs.
As independent experts serving in an advisory role, Special Rapporteurs are not bound by any agency or government, and have – in high level policy debates at least – an unusual level of freedom to act as officially mandated critics of whatever they deem appropriate within their specific remit. This page provides more information on the special rapporteur.
The candour on this issue from a senior UN advisor is hugely important. While support for decriminalisation exists across the UN agencies, support for regulation currently does not (decriminalisation is nominally allowable within the overtly prohibitionist UN drug treaty framework, but legalisation and regulation is obviously not). The only equivalent call has come from those who have left the UN, such as former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and from the Special Rapporteur’s immediate predecessor, Anand Grover, who in 2010 recommended that member states:
“Consider creation of an alternative drug regulatory framework in the long term, based on a model such as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.”
Grover has subsequently become more active on the issue, joining Kofi Annan on the Global Commission on Drug Policy.