International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy

1.4. Human rights and a healthy environment

Human rights and environmental protection are interdependent. States should ensure a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights, including the rights to health and to an adequate standard of living. This applies to those who live and work in and near communities where the cultivation of illicit drug crops takes place. State obligations to protect against environmental health hazards also apply extraterritorially.

In accordance with efforts to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights related to a healthy environment, States should:

i. Ensure that drug control measures do not cause deforestation, the degradation of natural habitats, the loss of biodiversity, or other environmental harm either within or outside their geographic borders.

ii. Take effective steps to prevent and redress environmental harms caused by drug control measures on illicit crop cultivation and production, including steps to limit exposure to pesticides or other chemicals used to eradicate such crops.

iii. Establish and enforce buffer zones prohibiting or regulating the application of pesticides and other chemicals used for drug crop eradication around sensitive sites, including human settlements, farms, and water sources.

iv. Prohibit the aerial spraying of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals as a method to prevent and eradicate illicit drug crops absent proof that such chemicals pose no risk to human life or the environment.

v. Require comprehensive environmental impact assessments to be carried out with the participation of affected populations in order to assess the expected impact of drug control measures on the environment and to determine the extent to which planned activities can be modified. These studies should be completed prior to the commencement of drug control measures.

vi. Monitor the implementation of drug control activities. In the event of environmental and related harm arising from such activities, develop and implement adequate and effective remediation measures in consultation with affected populations.


The obligation to adopt measures to protect against and remedy environmental hazards such as polluted air,223 water, and soil is part of States’ obligations to protect people’s right to life,224 health,225 food,226 and water,227 and children’s rights to health228 and to an adequate standard of living.229 These obligations apply extraterritorially.230 In keeping with human rights obligations, States should ensure that the design and implementation of remediation measures are carried out in consultation with those whose rights related to a healthy environment have been violated, and they should make concerted efforts to ensure the meaningful participation of women and minority groups in these consultations.231

The right to a healthy environment is recognised in regional treaties and in the constitutions and legislation of more than 150 governments.232

UN human rights mechanisms have raised concerns that exposure to pesticides and other chemicals used for crop eradication – in particular via aerial spraying – can have serious negative impacts on the enjoyment of the right to health of adults, children, and indigenous peoples.233 The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has expressed deep concern about the use of pesticides and herbicides that contain glyphosate, which the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified as a probable carcinogen because of its serious adverse effects on human health.234 The Committee has recommended the suspension of such aerial spraying and the provision of alternative development programmes instead, ‘including the possibility of participating in the medical cannabis market through a licensing programme for small-scale community farmers’.235 The Committee has also recommended the adoption of a regulatory framework that includes the application of the precautionary principle regarding the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides, in particular those with glyphosate, to avoid the negative health impacts and environmental degradation that can result from their use.236

Based on its concerns about aerial spraying, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples recommends that no aerial spraying of illicit crops take place near indigenous settlements or sources of provisions unless the relevant indigenous communities have expressly requested such spraying and are fully informed of the implications.237 The Special Rapporteur also recommends that aerial spraying affecting a population across a national border be definitively halted and that compensation be provided for any damages caused by such spraying.238 Meanwhile, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food has expressed concern about the detrimental consequences of the use of pesticides on the rights to food, health, and biodiversity and has called on States to create buffer zones around plantations and farms.239 The Special Rapporteur recommends that States use the precautionary principle as the basis for their risk assessment and registration processes for pesticides, taking into account these chemicals’ hazardous effects on human health and the environment, and recommends that States consider non-chemical alternatives first, allowing the registration of chemicals only where need can be demonstrated.240

Relationship to the UN drug control conventions

The 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances requires States Parties to ‘take appropriate measures to prevent illicit cultivation of and to eradicate plants containing narcotic or psychotropic substances’. However, these measures must ‘respect fundamental human rights and shall take due account of traditional licit uses, where there is historic evidence of such use, as well as protection of the environment’.241 The UN General Assembly Special Session 2016 Outcome Document reiterates this obligation,242 also recommending the use of ‘criteria related to environmental sustainability’ in measuring the effectiveness of alternative development programmes.243