International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy

4. Meaningful participation

Everyone has the right to participate in public life. This includes the right to meaningful participation in the design, implementation, and assessment of drug laws, policies, and practices, particularly by those directly affected.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Remove legal barriers that unreasonably restrict or prevent the participation of affected individuals and communities in the design, implementation, and assessment of drug laws, policies, and practices.

ii. Adopt and implement legislative and other measures, including institutional arrangements and mechanisms, to facilitate the participation of affected individuals and groups in the design, implementation, and assessment of drug laws, policies, and practices.

iii. Remove laws depriving people of the right to vote as a consequence of drug convictions.


International law guarantees the right to participate in public life on an equal basis with others.35 The effective recognition, protection, and enjoyment of this right requires the complementary guarantee of the associated rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.36 The right to participation is therefore a broad concept related to the exercise of political power, particularly legislative, executive, and administrative powers. It covers all aspects of public administration, including the formulation and implementation of policy at the international, regional, national, and local levels, as well as the rights to vote, to stand for election, and to engage in public service in one’s country.37

In general, any conditions on the exercise of participation rights should be ‘based on objective and reasonable criteria’, according to the Human Rights Committee. In particular, these rights should not be suspended, nor should individuals or groups be excluded from their exercise, ‘except on grounds which are established by law’ and are ‘objective and reasonable’.38 Regarding modes of ‘direct participation’, no discriminatory distinctions should be made among citizens, nor should ‘unreasonable restrictions’ be imposed.39

UN human rights mechanisms have raised concerns about the harmful effects of drug laws on the right to participate in public life.40 In some jurisdictions, for example, people with criminal convictions may be denied the right to vote. A substantial number of those disenfranchised for this reason have been convicted of drug offences.41 The Human Rights Committee maintains that the right to vote ‘may be subject only to reasonable restrictions’. While certain restrictions – such as those based on minimum age – may be considered ‘reasonable’, other restrictions are not, particularly if they are discriminatory.42 Moreover, States have an obligation to ‘take effective measures’ to ensure that all eligible voters can exercise that right, including by removing obstacles to voter registration.43 The Committee is of the view that any suspensions of the right to vote based on criminal convictions must be proportionate and should not apply to the non-convicted who are in custody.44 The Committee has also concluded that blanket denials of the right to vote to convicted prisoners and those serving a prison sentence do not meet requirements of the Covenant.45 It has thus recommended that such restrictions on the right to vote be lifted, legislation denying convicted prisoners the right to vote be revised, and the right to vote be afforded to convicted prisoners and those serving a prison sentence.46 Likewise, the right to stand for election should not be ‘unreasonably’ limited, and restrictions must be ‘justifiable on objective and reasonable criteria’ that may not include political opinion or ‘unreasonable or discriminatory requirements’.47 Therefore, election laws that do not comply with the above criteria – and particularly those amounting to unreasonable or disproportionate restrictions or to discriminatory restrictions on prohibited grounds – fall afoul of human rights standards.

Civil society organisations and affected individuals play an important role in the design, implementation, and assessment of laws, policies, and practices that affect them. In this context, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has recognised the important role that civil society organisations play in providing treatment and support services to women who use drugs and has recommended that adequate funding be provided to organisations carrying out this work.48 The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has highlighted the importance of involving health experts, civil society, and affected communities in the development of drug policy and in the determination of what constitutes success in drug treatment.49 It has thus recommended that civil society, including drug users’ associations, be afforded ‘a meaningful consultative role in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of drug policies’ and be involved in drug policy development and determination of what constitutes success in drug treatment. The Human Rights Committee has recommended that States take measures to ensure these stakeholders’ active, open, and transparent participation in public affairs.50 The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance has called for States to ensure the legal and institutional protection of minorities’ rights to representation and participation in public affairs.51 Guidance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, created at the request of the Human Rights Council, builds on this jurisprudence, recommending that efforts be made to create an enabling environment conducive to the exercise of the right to equal, meaningful participation by affected individuals and civil society organisations at all levels, with particular attention paid to promoting and ensuring the equal participation of those who are marginalised or discriminated against, including, among others, women and girls, young people, people with disabilities, indigenous groups, and people belonging to minority groups.52 This includes identifying and notifying rights holders directly affected by, or who may have interest in, a proposed project, plan, law, or policy; providing timely, clear information relating to the decision making process; providing sufficient opportunity for rights holders to prepare and submit contributions; providing timely access to adequate, accessible, and necessary information to allow for their effective participation; and providing information on the outcome of the participatory process in a timely, comprehensive, and transparent manner. This also includes ensuring that civil society access to international forums is provided without discrimination of any kind; establishing permanent structures for the continuous participation of civil society actors; facilitating the timely issuance of visas; and making funds available to facilitate civil society’s meaningful and equal participation in international forums.53 Guidance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also recommends that States not impose undue restrictions on civil society access to funding from domestic, foreign, or international sources and recognises the protection of civil society organisations, including affected groups, from threats, attacks, reprisals, and acts of intimidation and open and honest interaction between public authorities and all members of society, including the most at risk of being marginalised or discriminated against, as important to secure the right to participation.54

The Sustainable Development Goals call for States to ‘[e]nsure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels’.55 The UN General Assembly Special Session 2016 Outcome Document also recognises that ‘affected populations … where appropriate, should be enabled to play a participatory role in the formulation, implementation and … evaluation of drug control policies and programmes’ and calls for the ‘meaningful participation’ of civil society organisations in drug-related health services.56 States should also recognise that children are explicitly guaranteed the right to be heard in issues that affect them and should ‘ensure the involvement of women in all stages of the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of drug policies and programmes’.57