Sur 21 – Letter to the readers


Executive Editor


The Sur File on Drugs and Human Rights. As the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) approaches, which will be held in April 2016, Sur Journal publishes its 21st issue with a cover section on drug policies from a human rights’ perspective. With the assistance of the renowned expert Julita Lemgruber from Brazil, as guest editor for this section, this issue of the Sur File gathers leading voices in the field of drugs and human rights from places as diverse as India, Thailand, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, United States and Nigeria. All of them seek to answer one central question: how can we – as human rights activists, academics and policy-makers – rebuild current drug policies in order for them to promote human rights, in particular users’ rights?

Sur Journal’s editorial team decided to compile this special issue for a number of reasons. First, human rights NGOs are increasingly recognising the violations that occur due to repressive, prohibitionist drug policies. More importantly NGOs are beginning to act in order to change this trend. Rafael Custódio (Brazil) opens the Sur File by listing several measures that NGOs have taken in the context of repressive drug policies. Those efforts include legislative advocacy, national and international litigation, networking and research on the impact of drug policies, among others. In NGOs and Drug Policy, Custódio argues that only by “expanding individual rights and limiting the powers of state control”, which must be achieved through strong pressure from civil society organisations, can the harm inflicted by prohibitionist drug policies be reduced.

Second, there is a need to move beyond the usual legal approach that dominates the discourse on drug policies. Sur File does so by publishing two interdisciplinary contributions from health specialists, Carl Hart (United States) and Luís Fernando Tófoli (Brazil). Both authors provide evidence-based arguments against prohibitionist policies, from the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry, respectively. Well-known for making use of empirical research to challenge social prejudices regarding drug dependency, Hart, in his article Empty Slogans, Real Problems, shows how US drug policies have travelled to other countries, notably Brazil, and what impact this has had on human rights – mostly on black and materially poor communities. Meanwhile in his article Drug Policies and Public Health, Tófoli focuses on Brazil’s health policies in relation to drugs. In particular he examines the country’s insufficient harm reduction programmes and therapeutic communities – some of them responsible for rights’ violations. Both authors call for drug policies that do not require abstinence as their ultimate health goal.

Third, new drug policies have emerged in all corners of the world, in particular in the Global South, which deserves a place in any comprehensive reflection on drugs and human rights. For this reason, the Sur File has a series of articles to map current developments in drug policies in Latin America, Asia, and West Africa. These articles highlight the existing nuances in drug policies around the world. In his piece West Africa: A New Frontier for Drug Policy, Adeolu Ogunrombi (Nigeria) shows that this region, often seen as only a centre for trafficking, is also becoming a hub for consumption and production. Ogunrombi, a commissioner of the West Africa Commission on Drugs, convincingly shows how the region embraced the war on drugs ideology, which has resulted in numerous violations, many unreported and unchecked.

Regarding Latin America, two further articles offer an equally nuanced view of the region’s drug policies. In their article The Elephant in the Room: Drugs and Human Rights in Latin America, Juan Carlos Garzón (Colombia) and Luciana Pol (Argentina) argue that, while the region has proved to be a protagonist in pushing for reform of the international drug control system, it still largely maintains a focus on repression of drugs which has, in their words, “led to a ‘war’ with a clearly defined enemy (growers, consumers, smugglers and drug ‘lords’), the use of armed units (including military forces deployed in public policing and security roles) and thousands of victims.”

Within the Latin American context, it comes as no surprise that repression is also the main feature of Brazilian drug policy, as argued by Luciana Boiteux (Brazil) in her detailed study Brazil: Critical Reflections on a Drug Policy. Boiteux shows that techniques such as “routinely denying suspects the right to release pending trial and also by rarely applying alternative sentences to imprisonment” have led to the over-incarceration of drug users, despite recent formal recognition of users’ rights dating back to 2006.

Asia is also the subject of scrutiny in an article that challenges the black and white view of the region’s drug policies. In Asia: Advocating for Humane and Effective Drug Policies, Gloria Lai (Thailand) argues that while many Asian countries “introduced some level of policy reform to approach drug use as a health issue rather than a crime”, punitive drug policies remain across Asia, both at the national and at the regional level, with ASEAN’s drug-free policy. Lai, a member of the International Drug Policy Consortium, calls for a stronger civil society involvement – from research to advocacy – in order to push states towards adopting improved drug policies.

Finally, it is a critical to look to the future of the debate on drugs and human rights. When UN Members States enter the negotiation room in 2016 at the organisation’s headquarters in New York City, they will have to face a tough truth: that the “prevailing global approach to drug control has been – and continues to be – an unequivocal failure.” In his op-ed piece UN in 2016: A Watershed Moment Anand Grover (India), a former UN Special Rapporteur and now a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, sheds light on the trillion-dollar war on drugs, making a series of recommendations for the upcoming UN meeting, including that “people’s health and safety must be put ahead of any other policy consideration.”

In this spirit, Milton Romani Gerner (Uruguay), one of the main proponents of Uruguay’s innovative legal reform that regulates the marijuana market, also examines the future of drug policies by revealing – based on Uruguay’s experience – what are the challenges of putting in place comprehensive drug reforms of this magnitude. While pointing out that Uruguay does “not aim to serve as a model for everyone”, in his article Uruguay’s Advances in Drug Policy, Gerner – Uruguay’s former ambassador to the OAS – invites us to be audacious in promoting changes in our national systems – changes that put people’s health at the core.

Essays. A series of essays bring provoking questions to this issue. In his piece State Regulatory Powers and Global Legal Pluralism, Víctor Abramovich (Argentina) discusses how the plethora of legal norms and institutions at the international level impose conflicting obligations upon states, often to the detriment of the protection of human rights. By looking at three fields, namely: the foreign investment protection regime, the global regime on mining concessions and the international trade regime, the author reveals how different stakeholders resort to their most favourable forum when needing to settle international disputes, which leaves conflicts without a final, coherent resolution.

Meanwhile, in a rigorous effort to gather information on the recent dialogue between the Brazilian Ministry of Defence, the country’s Armed Forces and its National Truth Commission, whose final report was published in December 2014, Glenda Mezarobba (Brazil) offers a detailed account of how this dialogue took place and what its concrete results were. Having led part of this effort, Mezarobba – in her essay Lies Engraved on Marble and Truths Lost Forever – argues that although not a single case of forced disappearance or death was resolved, the dialogue that took place can not be ignored.

Finally, in an insightful contribution from one of the leading voices at Doctors without Borders, Jonathan Whittall (South Africa) invites our readers to consider the question: Is Humanitarian Action Independent from Political Interests? While admitting that the humanitarian system is currently “facing a crisis of legitimacy”, often for being intertwined with Western political interests, the author proposes, inter alia, that humanitarian organisations must pursue “radical impartiality”, including focusing on the “basics of saving lives for the sake of saving lives” in order to overcome such a crisis.

Experiences. Sur Journal publishes a case study by one of the leaders of the mass protest that paralysed Hong Kong in 2014, the so-called Umbrella Movement. In his piece Occupying Hong Kong, Kin-man Chan (China) provides an insider view of how Hong Kong citizens conducted political negotiations, making use of deliberation mechanisms, referendums and in certain instances civil disobedience. By revealing the strong disagreements between protesters and the challenges of ensuring their demands are met by the Chinese government, Chan’s contribution is an honest and unique portrait of one of the biggest mass protests in recent history.

Institutional Outlook. Inês Mindlin Lafer (Brazil) presents an interesting discussion about how her family went about organising its philanthropic foundation, the Betty & Jacob Lafer Institute. Acknowledging a gap in family philanthropy in Brazil, which accounts for only 8% of social investment in the country, the piece Family Philanthropy in Brazil offers an examination of the kinds of decisions that need to be taken and the challenges that must be overcome when establishing a grant making organisation committed to strengthening democratic society.

Conversations. We are proud to publish two interviews with courageous activists facing adverse situations. Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera (Uganda), the most prominent lesbian activist in her country, explains how she has helped the LGBTI community to strengthen their voice in a country which imposes harsh criminal sanctions against homosexuals. Nabagesera reflects on her role in publishing Bombastic Magazine, as well as in opening the first gay bar and holding the first pride parade in Uganda.

In addition, Sur Journal team interviewed two activists about their various efforts taken to keep the cry of resistance of the victims of forced disappearances in Mexico alive. Gerardo Torres Pérez (Mexico), a classmate of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa who were disappeared in September 2014, and María Luisa Aguilar (Mexico), coordinator of the NGO Tlachinollan, provide a personal account on the tragedies of forced disappearance in the country and the attempts to make those responsible accountable, and the disappeared brought up back alive.

Voices. Anthony D. Romero (United States) the Executive Director of the leading human rights organisation in the US, the American Civil Liberties Union, urges the Internet generation, civil society and the private sector to demand an end to the continued mass surveillance by the US government of their email accounts. In his op-ed Mass E-Mail Surveillance: The Next Battle he clearly sets out the offending legislation and describes how Edward Snowden has fundamentally altered the way in which online privacy is viewed. Consequently, Romero argues that we are witnessing the emergence of a new global human rights movement, for privacy on the Internet.

Images. For the first time, in addition to articles, Sur Journal publishes a series of human rights-related photographs. Curated by the photographer Leandro Viana (Brazil), five international photographers explain an image of a protest that they captured in their respective countries. With this section, Sur Journal hopes to combine the power of those images with the unique insight of the photographers, in order to shed light on the recent wave of global protests from an insider’s view.