Speeches and other documents by the Secretary General


November 12, 2013 - Washington, DC

Since we delivered the Report on "The Drug Problem in the Americas" in April of this year, I have had numerous occasions to present it. However, this is the first time it is being examined by an audience directly involved with the subject of human rights. That makes this occasion especially exciting, and we hope to draw important conclusions from the dialogue you are about to embark on.

The task of producing the Report was entrusted to us by the Sixth Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Americas, as it pondered the evidence that policies to eliminate drug trafficking in recent decades have failed, so much so that, far from diminishing, it has spread to the entire region and now poses a threat to the very integrity of States.

Against that backdrop, we were asked to analyze the outcomes of current drug policy in the Americas and to explore new approaches aimed at boosting efforts to confront the problem more effectively.

Our report acknowledges the hemispheric scope of drug trafficking and use, but it also recognizes that its various facets (crop cultivation, production, transit, sale and drug use), while they are to be found in all countries, affect them in different ways.

Thus, while drug use is ubiquitous, its effects in terms of the number of people affected are greater in the countries of North America, where drug use is still more frequent. However, in other countries drug use is on the increase and is particularly worrisome in some southern American countries where cocaine paste and crack are wreaking havoc, especially among young people.

In contrast, the impact on the economy, the social fabric, security, and democratic governance is greater in the planting, producing, and transit countries located in South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In the countries of North America, where the trafficked substances are chiefly headed, those impacts are much less marked.

From the point of view of the value-added at each stage or by each part of the illegal drugs economy (planting, production, transit, and sale), the sales phase is clearly when most revenue and profit are generated, accounting for 65% of the total, compared to the roughly 1% accruing to the original farmers and producers.

Paul Simons will give a presentation this morning on the principal features of our Report. So allow me just to make a few comments from a human rights point of view and very briefly to touch on a number of topics relating to the Report's conclusions.

The first has to do with a democratic State's duty to eliminate the violence and insecurity associated with the activities of organized criminal bands and thereby meet its core obligation to protect its citizens.

Criminal acts associated with the production and, above all, transit of substances to destination countries and end-consumption markets are far more pervasive and alarming than those generated by retail sales and drug users. Such criminal violence is perpetrated principally by transnational organized criminal gangs capable of acts of extreme violence, that have, moreover, diversified their activities to cover a wide range of crimes other than drug trafficking (trafficking in persons, firearms, money, body parts, intellectual property theft, contraband, kidnapping, and extortion).

The insecurity triggered by the activities of these gangs or "cartels" affects not only citizens' bodily integrity and property but society as a whole, spawning corruption that can undermine civil and State institutions and even impair a country's democratic governance. Impunity and corruption encourage violence, since they enable criminals to act confidently, without worrying about sentences they could receive, however hefty they might appear to be on paper.

The lack of rule of law is what best explains the high rates of violence by criminal organizations and the fact that they dominate territories and influence government decisions. That is where efforts must be focused, if the goal is to put an end to, or at least drastically reduce, citizen insecurity.

The State cannot abdicate this responsibility to protect the life, freedom, and well-being of its citizens threatened by organized criminal violence. The criminal violence directly perpetrated by criminal gangs in entire regions and urban districts in our countries violates the rights proclaimed in Articles 3 and 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 1 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which refer to the life, security, and liberty of human beings, as well as the rights related to their status as citizens and the conditions that should prevail for them to be able to exercise those rights.

Freedom of expression is impaired when, as in Latin America, journalists are so often murdered and intimidated. Access to justice is impaired when the victims or witnesses of crimes who report them are the object of acts of revenge by criminals who go unpunished. The grip that drug trafficking has on our countries leads to repeated violations of the rights of their citizens.

In these and other ways, one could say that many of our states do not meet this basic obligation and thereby impair the rights of all those who are victims of violence.

Often, however, and above all in countries in which the State is weakest, policies for strengthening the rule of law are confused with policies based on the premise that rights may be denied in order to strengthen the rule of law. Drug trafficking cannot be fought with policies that violate or may violate civil liberties.

Nevertheless, the Conventions that address the subject of drugs make scant reference to standards of justice rooted in human rights principles. International Conventions on Drugs developed at the United Nations in 1961, 1971, and 1988, only once expressly mention the need to apply criteria based on respect for human rights: Article 14 of the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, when it refers to measures for the eradication of plants containing narcotic or psychotropic substances. The same omission is noticeable in national legislations. Not only that: they also often flaunt principles designed to protect due process of law: countries in which those who commit drug-related offenses are handled by parallel justice systems without oversight and which fail to meet minimum international standards; countries in which disproportionate penalties are meted out to persons found in possession of drugs/drug users; countries that violate the presumption of innocence principle, reversing the burden of proof when the amount of drugs passes the threshold used to classify drug trafficking; and countries that detain suspects without legal grounds or for unlimited periods of time; and so on.

Other issues relating to our states' partial failure to meet their obligations, when it comes to human rights, are: the exponential increase in the prison population; the social and environmental impact of eradication programs; the displacement of populations, leading to unemployment and poverty; and other effects of the repressive approach taken to the problem.

There is, indeed, a clear connection between poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunities and the drug problem.

As far as the use of controlled substances is concerned, our Report establishes that, although it cuts across the whole of society, it ends to be disproportionately more pervasive among vulnerable segments. Because of the types of substances used in these sectors (inhalants, smokable forms of cocaine), users normally run greater risks, while at the same time having less access to treatment and rehabilitation options given their social exclusion.

Most of those operating as drug producers, traffickers, and dealers, including the hired murderers of organized criminal gangs, also once pertained to vulnerable segments in our societies and, in most cases, suffered from inequality of opportunities, scant schooling, and family poverty.

For that reason we maintain that reducing or eliminating the violence and insecurity related to the retail drug trade found in socially vulnerable districts and areas in Latin America and the Caribbean requires mitigating that social vulnerability and comprehensive action by both the State and civil society to enhance education, employment, equal opportunities, and urban living conditions.

Drug-use related violence and insecurity need to be reduced or eliminated with actions designed to prevent drug use, while drug users or addicts need to be treated and rehabilitated like individuals suffering from a chronic or recurrent illness.

Our report establishes that a public health approach to drug use is required in all our countries, with more resources and programs to ensure success. This approach includes promoting healthy lifestyles, protecting users with measures designed to restrict the availability of psychoactive substances, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, and reintegration into society. Fundamental change in this sphere has come from regarding dug users as victims of a long-term dependency and not as criminals or accomplices of the drug-traffickers.

One of the features of the Report that has drawn most attention, perhaps, is our affirmation that decriminalization of the possession of drugs for personal consumption should be considered as a fundamental ingredient of any public health policy. An addict is a chronically sick person who should not be punished for his or her dependence; rather, he or she has a right to be treated appropriately.

Deprivation of liberty runs counter to this approach and should only be used when an addict's life is in danger and his or her behavior constitutes a threat to society. If the addict or user is considered a sick person, he or she should have the same rights of protection before the law as those established in Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the right not to be discriminated against as established in that same Article.

Currently, many countries in the Americas criminalize the possession of substances even when they are for personal use. In these countries, as a result, one can find drug users in prison solely for possession for their own use, even though in those same countries the drug problem is officially considered a "health problem." Furthermore, the limits still in place with respect to decriminalization of possession for personal use, in those countries in which decriminalization has occurred, mean that many users end up in prison anyway, possibly for having exceeded the limits on possession that the law sets.

Naturally, we are aware that a full-fledged approach to this problem, by decriminalizing the possession of substances whose production, trafficking, and sale are nevertheless prohibited by law, is something that will take time and requires further study. That is why we recommend in the same Report that if it proves impossible to adopt such a radical shift in treatment of users and addicts from one day to another, a start should at least be made with transitional methods, such as drug courts, substantial reductions in penalties, and rehabilitation.

My friends:

The central message of our Report is that dealing effectively with the drug problem requires a multiple and extremely flexible approach imbued with understanding for very different circumstances and based on the conviction that, if we are to succeed, we must maintain unity among our countries while acknowledging that their circumstances vary.

Greater flexibility could lead to acceptance of the possibility of amending domestic legislation or promoting changes to international laws. Nevertheless, let us not forget that, despite their resolutely prohibitionist stance, the United Nations Conventions nowhere refer to the private use or consumption of drugs. With respect to national legislation, it would be worth assessing existing signs and trends leaning toward the decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale, and use of marijuana. There does not appear to be significant support, in any country, for the decriminalization or legalization of trafficking in more harmful illegal drugs.

With respect to United Nations conventions, changes could result from the possibility of the current system for controlling narcotics and psychotropic substances becoming more flexible and allowing the parties to collectively explore drug policy options that take into consideration each country's own specific practices and traditions.

Thank you all for your attention and I look forward to hearing the discussion and your opinions.