Table 1: Harm Reduction and the right to life

Table 1: Harm Reduction and the Right to Life 

Examples of Human Rights Violations

  • A government authorizes, or fails to investigate, the murder of suspected drug traffickers as part of a crackdown on drugs.
  • An ambulance refuses to respond to a drug overdose because the underlying activity is “illegal.”
  • A government imposes the death penalty for drug-related offenses.
  • Drug users die in locked rehabilitation clinics or hospital wards, such as fire incidents in Peru in 2012 and in Moscow in 2006.
  • The government arbitrarily closes down a health service provided to drug users.
Human Rights Standards Treaty Body Interpretation
ICCPR 6(1) Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

ICCPR 6(2) In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court.


HRC: Expressing concern to Thailand over the extrajudicial killing of people who use drugs. Also stating definitively that capital punishment for drug offences is in violation of the ICCPR. CCPR/CO/84/THA (2005).

HRC: Stating to Kuwait that the “committee notes the implementation of the de facto moratorium on executions in the state party since 2007. However, it is concerned about: … (b) the large number of offences for which the death penalty can be imposed, including vague offences relating to internal and external security and drug-related crimes. CCPR/C/KWT/CO/2 (2011).

CRC 6(1). States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life.

CRC 6(2). States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.

CRC: Recommending Ukraine “ensure that criminal laws do not impede access to such services, including by amending laws that criminalize children for possession or use of drugs.” CRC/C/UKR/CO/3-4 (CRC, 2011).

CRC: Recommending Denmark “ensure that children who use drugs and abuse alcohol are treated as victims and not as criminals.” CRC/C/DNK/CO/3 (CRC, 2005).

Human Rights Standards Case Law
ECHR 2(1) Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law. ECtHR: Holding that a violation of the right to life occurs “where it is shown that the authorities . . . put an individual’s life at risk through the denial of health care which they have undertaken to make available to the population generally.” Cyprus v. Turkey, 25781/94, para. 721 (May 10, 2001).

Other Interpretations

SR Torture: “In the Special Rapporteur on torture’s view, drug offences do not meet the threshold of most serious crimes. Therefore, the imposition of the death penalty on drug offenders amounts to a violation of the right to life, discriminatory treatment and possibly, as stated above, also their right to human dignity.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment for the 10th session of the Human Rights Council (2009),

SR Torture: “Many states, commendably, will not extradite those who may face the death penalty. This is of particular relevance to drug policy due to the number of death sentences handed down and executions carried out for drug offences each year. While capital punishment is not prohibited entirely under international law, the weight of opinion indicates clearly that drug offences do not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes” to which the death penalty might lawfully be applied. In addition, States that have abolished the death penalty are prohibited to extradite any person to another country where he or she might face capital punishment.” Letter to CND Chairperson Ms. Selma Ashipala-Musavyi from Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on the question of torture, and Anand Grover, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, December 10, 2008.

The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: A Violation of Human Rights Law by the International Harm Reduction Association, available at:

India: Overturns mandatory death sentence for convictions for drug trafficking in July 2011, declaring Section 31A of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (NDPS Act) unconstitutional.