Human Rights, War on Drugs and Sean Penn on Complicity Part 1

Quenby Wilcox Having It All


"I feel complicit in the suffering that is going on..." said Sean Penn to Charlie Rose in his 60 Minutes interview, shortly after he published his article titled, El Chapo Speaks, in the Rolling Stones Magazine. While these words from a humanitarian perspective, are noble and honorable—from a human rights perspective, they are extremely insightful and perceptive.

Even though Mr. Penn (or Ms. del Castillo) could hardly be held complicit to any kind of illegal activity under national or international law, his words, and empathy for the many victims of the Failed War on Drugs, provide an opportunity to examine the complicity of those who are legally responsible here—namely the American government. In order to understand their complicity, or the complicity of any government for that matter, it is important to examine the definition of complicity under Principle Two (Human Rights) of the United Nations Global Compact,

Complicity means being implicated in a human rights abuse that another [] government, [] or other group is causing. The risk of complicity in a human rights abuse may be particularly high in areas with weak governance and/or where human rights abuse is widespread. However, the risk of complicity exists in every sector and every country.

Within this context, and the fact that the American government (and others) are increasingly implicated in corruption scandals and human rights violations—nationally, internationally, women's rights, children's rights, labor rights, victim's rights, the list goes on and on—it is not surprising that the War on Drugs has never been about some benevolent policy, started under Nixon, and escalated under Reagan. The War on Drugs is, and always has been, a policy used by the government as a "back-door" to advancing social conservatism in the US for over four decades.

First, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under the Clinton Administration examines the effect the Failed War on Drugs has had on racial profiling and mass incarceration in the US in his blog, The Big Picture: End Mass Incarceration Now[1]

Imprisoning a staggering number of our people is wrong. The way our nation does it is even worse. We must end mass incarceration, now.


If I'm walking down the street with a Black or Latino friend, my friend is way more likely to be stopped by the police, questioned, and even arrested. Even if we're doing the exact same thing—he or she is more likely to be convicted and sent to jail.


Unless we recognize the racism and abuse of our criminal justice system and tackle the dehumanizing stereotypes that underlie it, our nation – and our economy – will never be as strong as it could be.


Please take a moment to watch the accompanying video, and please share it so others can understand what's at stake for so many Americans. (posted on


Here are the facts:


Today, the United States has 5 percent of the world's population, but has 25 percent of its prisoners, and we spend more than $80 billion each year on prisons.


The major culprit is the so-called War on Drugs. There were fewer than 200,000 Americans behind bars as recently as the mid-70's. Then, a racially-tinged drug hysteria swept our nation, and we saw a wave of increasingly militant policing that targeted communities of color and poorer neighborhoods.


With "mandatory minimums" and "three strikes out" laws, the number of Americans behind bars soon ballooned to nearly 2.5 million today, despite widespread evidence that locking people up doesn't make us safer.


Unconscious bias and cultural stereotypes lead to discriminatory enforcement of the laws – from who gets pulled over to where police conduct drug sweeps.


Even though Blacks, whites, and Latinos use drugs at similar rates, people with black and brown skin are more likely to be pulled over, searched, arrested, charged with a crime, convicted, and sent to jails and prisons where they can be subject to some of the worst human rights abuses.


As a result, black people incarcerated at a rate five times that of whites, and Latinos incarcerated at a rate double that of white Americans.


Even if you've "served your time," you never escape the label.


A felony conviction can bar you from getting a student loan, putting a roof over your head, or even from voting. It might even disqualify you from getting a job which can make it impossible for people with felony convictions to pull themselves out of poverty. And many who end up in prison were living in chronic poverty to begin with.


All of this means a lot of potential human talent is going to waste. We're spending a fortune locking people up who could fuel our economy and build strong communities, in some cases just to increase the profits of private prison corporations.