Philippines kian protest

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch released its latest World Report, reviewing human rights and spotlighting abuses in nearly 100 countries. Drug policy shouldn’t feature heavily in such a report. Unfortunately, it does — revealing just how much more has to be done to ensure human rights-compliant drug policies.

Unlawful killings

In the Philippines, the government’s ‘drug war’ is estimated to have killed up to 27,000 people since 2016. Officially, the deaths of ‘only’ 5,526 suspects are recorded by the police, but this does not include unidentified individuals killed with no follow-up investigation (the failure to investigate being a further breach of the right to life). This is being carried out in defiance of international law, with President Duterte announcing in a September speech that ‘if you go into drugs. I will kill you...Even with the United Nations listening, I will kill you, period.’

The World Report notes how, on many occasions, the deaths were as a result of police raids to apprehend individuals thought to use or deal drugs. Instead of being taken into custody, these individuals wound up dead, with the police claiming self-defence. Several children have also been killed by stray bullets. Unlawful killings by police in relation to drug law enforcement were also recorded elsewhere in the world: for instance, in Bangladesh, unlawful killings by security forces during a drive against recreational drugs were reportedly covered up by claiming the deaths occurred during ‘crossfire’ exchanges of bullets.

The Death Penalty

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly stressed that the death penalty must not be applied except for the most serious crimes — which do not include drug offences. Despite this, research from Harm Reduction International (HRI) found that, in 2019, drug offences remained punishable by death in at least 35 countries. At least 122 people were executed for drug offences, up 31% from 2018, without including unknown data on the number of executions in Vietnam and China.

The World Report notes that 81 individuals were executed for non-violent drug crimes in Saudi Arabia between January and mid-November (HRI puts the figure at 84 by the end of the year), with executions commonly carried out by firing squad or beheading — sometimes in public. The international rise in executions in 2019 follows a regressive trend, which has seen an increasing number of countries reverting to inhumane drug policies. In the Philippines, ‘allies of President Duterte in both houses of Congress pushed for the reimposition of the death penalty, especially for drug crimes’. In Sri Lanka, (now-former) President Sirisena resumed executions, before the Supreme Court stayed the execution of four prisoners convicted of drug offences. Despite this trend, Iran has seen a decrease in the total number of executions in the past two years after legislative action increasing the requirements for imposing the death penalty for drug offences.

Although many countries retain the death penalty for drug offences in legislation, few use it in practice. HRI note that only four countries are confirmed to have carried out executions for drug offences in 2019. Nonetheless, the retention of the death penalty in legislation remains of grave concern, indicating a lack of political will to draw a definitive line under inhumane drug policies.

Police Brutality

Police brutality was of major concern in many countries. In El Salvador, police ‘allegedly beat and strangled a blindfolded, handcuffed youth whom they suspected of gang membership or hiding weapons or drugs, and set fire to the field where they left him unconscious’. The World Report notes that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has suggested that the special police force created to combat drug trafficking and criminal organisations in Venezuela is being used ‘as an instrument to instill fear in the population and to maintain social control’.

Police brutality is fuelled by a lack of accountability. The World Report notes that, of the thousands of killings in the Philippines, only one case has resulted in the conviction of police officers. In September 2019, the police claimed that 103 police officers were facing criminal charges in relation to drug war killings, fewer than half of those implicated. In Lebanon, ‘judicial authorities failed to investigate torture allegations’ by an individual arrested on drug-related charges prior to his death in custody in May 2019.

In Mexico, the response to drug-related violence and organised crime continues to result in human rights abuses. The World Report notes that, between January and July 2019, the National Human Rights Commission received 241 complaints in relation to abuses conducted by military personnel. In April 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reiterated ‘the need to create a new civil police force capable of combating organised crime and drug trafficking while respecting human rights’.

Harsh Drug Laws and False Charges

The World Report notes with concern the continuance of ‘unjustifiably harsh drug laws’ and punishments. This includes the continued prosecution of individuals in Georgia for possession of drugs for personal use, resulting in long sentences and the deprivation of rights including the ability to drive a vehicle or carry out an array of professions. In Singapore, corporal punishment remains a mandatory punishment for males aged 16 to 50 convicted of drug trafficking crimes.

Drug offences also remain a political tool used to silence government critics, where no such offences have taken place. A number of countries arrested government critics on bogus drugs charges in 2019, including leading opposition party members in Azerbaijan, human rights activists and journalists in Russia, and a Senator leading criticism of the drug war in the Philippines.


The arbitrary detention of individuals who use drugs in forced treatment centres remains a grave concern. In June 2019, Brazilian President Bolsanaro signed a Bill allowing for the compulsory internment of individuals who use drugs in treatment facilities without judicial authorisation. Similarly, a ministerial order signed in Rwanda in 2018 is being used to authorise the detention of those who ‘exhibit deviant behaviours’ (including drug use) in ‘rehabilitation services’ where conditions have been recorded as harsh and inhumane.

Conversely, access to treatment and medication where individuals seek it also remains a major issue. The Report notes that in Gaza, 46% of essential medicines (as designated by the World Health Organization) were at zero stock by mid-November. In the USA, eligibility of low-income individuals for Medicaid is being restricted by barriers including drug testing, which can prevent individuals who use drugs from accessing assistance with medical costs. The use of pharmaceutical drugs including anti-psychotics has also been recorded in care homes in both Australia and the USA as a ‘routine’ method used to control the behaviour of individuals with dementia, often without adequate consent of the individual in question.

Freedom of Expression

The World Report discusses emerging trends on restricting freedom of expression in relation to drugs. In Russia, this has included cancelling music performances under the pretext of protecting children from the promotion of drugs, as well as enforcing fines on NGOs providing harm reduction information. In the Philippines, a journalist publishing extensively on the drug war was twice arrested in 2019, facing ‘baseless cases of tax evasion and libel’.

Moving Forward

Drug policy should address how best to regulate production, supply and consumption to protect public health. It shouldn’t be about how best to use the criminal law to sanction drug possession, how the death penalty can impact on drug trafficking, or how forced treatment centres might coerce individuals into abstinence. The principle that ‘drug policy should be human rights-compliant’ should not be open to question. It should also not require advocacy efforts to convince governments to respect human rights on this issue. Unfortunately, it does, and we must work to make sure that — next year — drug policy does not have to be mentioned so frequently.

Harvey Slade, Research and Policy Officer at Transform Drug Policy Foundation.