Side event – The human rights impacts of drug policy

Moderator – Andrea of PRI: introducing panel with Ruth Dreifuss (former President of Switzerland), Robert Husbands (author of book on drug policy), Monique Middlehoff (Gender Mobilization Unit, UNAIDS) and Marie Nougier of IDPC.

We published a 10 point plan together with IDPC, please find it available here.

Robert Husbands, OHCHR: I will focus on HR violations in custody and detention. Concerning arbitrary arrests, police have targeted PUD in exchange for money or women for sexual favours. They may target drug treatment facilities. This clearly shows contradiction with measures to achieve PUD right to health. PUD are singled out for arrest because they are a far easier target. Sometimes they are automatically held in pre-trial detention, contrary to Article 14 of ICCPR. Drug control efforts also affect ethnic minorities and women, who are disproportionately arrested. For example, drug offenders can comprise up to 70% of prison population in Latin America. A commission has found this may be linked to poverty.

Law enforcement officials in some jurisdictions have been found to withhold OST in exchange for information about drug networks, which constitutes torture.

Compulsory rehabilitation centres subject PUD to ill-treatment, including solitary confinement, sexual violence, non-consensual treatment, forced labor and beatings, up to years in some cases and often out of jurisdictions of courts. Mostly located in East and Southeast Asia, holding people up to 235,000. UN agencies issued a statement in 2012 condemning these sentences.

There are also mandatory minimum sentences which result in sentences that can be more severe than for violent crimes such as homicide.

Possibilities are available for alternatives to incarceration.

On the issue of right to a fair trial, people charged with drug offences should always be tried in a civilian court and not for example military courts.

Some courts sentence people to punishment for failing treatment programmes. There are far too many cases where treatment extends beyond the period of sentence at the time of conviction.

We have posters on PUD and human rights, please put them around the conference.

Andrea Huber, PRI: This was a very interesting overview of the human rights issues relevant to drug policy, including disproportionately long prison sentences, compulsory drug treatment and overcrowded prisons.

Monique, UNAIDS: Of the 30 million people held in prisons every years, 50% are drug users, with 10 million people in prison at any time. Many of them are sex workers, gay and other vulnerable groups. Overcrowding is found in prisons all around the world. How does imprisonment affects health?

  1. The health of people held in prison do not forego their rights while in detention, including rights to highest attainable standard of health such as access to HIV-related harm reduction services.
  2. Overcrowding increases the risk of infections. For example, incidence of TB is much higher in prisons than in general population. HIV prevalence is higher among prisoners than in the general population as well.
  3. Risk of unsafe behaviours and sexual violence, likely to be under-reported, due to fear and stigma. Women are also vulnerable to risks of transactional sex and sexual exploitation. Men are also more likely to inject drugs for the first time.
  4. Marginalization, criminalization and punishment, stemming from discriminatory laws and disproportionate laws for drug crimes including criminalization of drug use and possession for personal use.

Numerous publications show the way forward, including those from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, UNAIDS and Harm Reduction International. It is not that the world does not know what to do, just that the political will is not there. There is also often not enough data on vulnerable groups due to marginalization. Count people because people count.

How can we do better on the issues outlined above?

  1. Improve health care provision, including adopting Nelson Mandela Rules and harm reduction interventions: harm reduction, including NSP, MMT, condoms, testing people on a voluntary basis and giving them treatment as soon as people are HIV positive. Eg. harm reduction programmes in Spain help keep HIV incidence and AIDS levels low. Anything that is mandatory, including HIV testing and counseling, is unacceptable. When people are released from prison, they are at greater risk of overdose and naloxone should be made available.
  2. Reduce prison overcrowding through decriminalization of drug use and reduce imprisonment of key populations, close CCDUs
  3. Address unsafe sex and sexual violence: prisons could do a lot more to protect women from violence and not turn their backs. Give people condoms. In Iran for example, they have give harm reduction programmes and give condoms, even though they don’t appreciate people in same sex relationships.
  4. Reform inappropriate laws and practices: stop stigma and discrimination, don’t treat people who use drugs as junkies, protect women and ethnic minorities.

Last but not least, help drug users to help themselves, including the meaningful involvement of people who use drugs. UNAIDS has produced some relevant publications on this particularly in light of the HLM on HIV coming up in June.

Andrea Huber, PRI: Thank you for this comprehensive overview, and highlighting the problems associated with overcrowded prisons.

Marie Nougier, IDPC: I’m going to focus on impacts of drug policies on women in Latin America. There is a trend worldwide that women constitute the fastest growing prison population, particularly in Latin America where the main driver is repressive drug laws. Rates of women imprisoned for drug offences can reach 65%.Women event

What is even more concerning is that these women don’t really fit the stereotype of a high level, violent criminal. Although there are always exceptions, most of these women:

  • Are first time offenders and condemned for low-level and non-violent drug offences. They rarely pose a real threat to society – and their incarceration contributes very little to the dismantling of illicit drug markets.
  • They are single mothers of several children and also care for elderly or disabled dependent – their incarceration can therefore have devastating impacts on their family, exacerbating their situation of poverty, abandonment and marginalisation.
  • They have low levels of formal education and have limited prospects in the licit economy
  • They are often driven by economic needs, generally to support their children and other dependents

This was the case for example for Lidieth, who was incarcerated for 5 years, 4 months in Costa Rica for selling small quantities of drugs. She was involved in drug dealing to support her three children, who are now in a situation of high vulnerability and abuse as their mother is serving time in prison.

  • Another trend we have seen is that many of these women are coerced by male partners or family members into the drug trade. This is facilitated by emotional bonds as well as unequal power relations between men and women. When they are arrested and sentenced, what we often see is that women pay not only for their drug offence, but also that of their male partner’s illicit activities in the drug trade.
  • It’s also important to recall that many of these women take a lot of risks in the drug trade for little financial return.

This is Johanna. To support her siblings, she agreed to carry a suitcase full of drugs to England via Venezuela. But she was eventually forced by the men she worked with to swallow 84 cocaine packets, and was sexually abused in the process. As one of the capsules burst inside her stomach, she was led to the emergency room in Venezuela – which actually saved her life! After serving her sentence in Venezuela, she returned to Costa Rica and fell in love with a man with ties to drug traffickers. She is currently serving a sentence for selling cannabis.

A final issue I wanted to mention was that of indigenous women incarcerated for drug offences, in particular in the Andean region. These women are even more vulnerable, sometimes not knowing the language in which their trial is taking place, or the risks they take by engaging in the drug trade.

Imprisoning these very vulnerable women has a significant impact on their lives, which we often describe as a “triple stigma”:

  1. First the criminal justice system condemns them, then incarcerates them for a disproportionate amount of time in penitentiary centres that are poorly equipped to meet their gender specific needs, and that of their children. In fact, children often have no other choice than to live in the street or go to prison with their mother.
  2. Second, they are condemned and stigmatised by society for breaking the traditional image of women as caregivers, and
  3. Finally, upon release from prison women continue to be punished and pushed at the margins of society because of their criminal record, often making it impossible for them to find employment in the licit economy. This leads to a vicious cycle of poverty and crime.

In order to respond to these issues, IDPC collaborated with the Washington Office on Latin America, DeJusticia and the Inter-American Commission on Women of the OAS to establish a working group. The objective was to identify a set of policy reform options to address the human rights issues affecting vulnerable women in Latin America. We published this report in February which provides detailed recommendations. There are copies at the back and here is the link where you can download it.

I will not go at length on the contents of the Guide, but I wanted to mention a few of our key recommendations:

  • First of all, it seems clear that we need more data on both the scale and the impact of incarceration of women for drug offences
  • Secondly, there is an urgent need to decriminalise drug use
  • Thirdly, governments must ensure that the sentences imposed for drug offences are proportionate and take into account a set of mitigating circumstances, such as being the sole provider of a child, being in a situation of economic vulnerability, being coerced into the trade, etc.
  • Fourth, we must use alternatives to incarceration – with prison only to be used as a last resort – this is a fundamental principle of this Guide.

And finally, it is essential that we adopt a human rights and development perspective to ensure that we address the underlying causes of women’s involvement in the drug trade, instead of focusing exclusively on repression and punishment.

Andrea Huber, PRI: Lack of access of women to avenues such as plea bargaining also leads to higher rates of incarceration.

Ruth Dreifuss, Global Commission on Drug Policy: I have a duty to wrap up the presentations from the panel. To be more general, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies here, along with numerous conventions such as the ICCPR. What remains is practical steps to realize those rights. Other commitments to human rights are made in the field of labour, and the SDGs and Climate Convention to be signed at the end of the week.

It may be that there is policy incoherence. Violations have been committed in the name of meeting a drug-free goal. The violations are to the rights of health, of women, of ethnic minorities, and against cruel and inhumane treatment. The problem is worsening. 50 years of prohibition have consolidated perspectives on drug consumption, the user is considered somebody who has lost control of their live, the cause of criminal activities, someone who cannot be trusted, someone who must be cured even without their consent. This is the root of many violations and their vulnerabilities. This has led to several recommendations. I am pleased to see growing consensus on recommendations to prevent violations of human rights. The Global Commission is really focusing on changing view of a person who uses drugs, we have to respect the choices of people and we have to help them when they face risks that are bigger than they can handle. Most people who use drugs are not dependent.

Decriminalisation is a concept that is not very clear in the discussions now. When I speak about it, it is not to find alternatives to punishment or less punishment, but is it to say that it is not a crime to consume psychoactive substances. But it is the duty of the state to regulate these substances, these two steps are what must be done. The latter is beyond the scope of the conventions, and we need to work in the following years to ensure that they are changed.

Andrea Huber, PRI: Overcrowded prisons means we are spending a lot more money than is necessary. I now welcome questions.

Martin Matter, Switzerland: I thank PRI for organizing this side event and it is very fitting that this is the first side event of the week. Robert, what has been the progress in the meantime with closing down CCDU after 2012 UN statement, has there been any impact?

Ruth Birgin, INPUD: what can be achieved with the human rights posters in the next few days?

Robert Husbands: I can’t give you an intelligent answer to the question. We were contacted at one point by a charity, they didn’t want to support facilities incompatible with human rights and WHO confirmed these centres continue.

Ruth Dreifuss: some progress can be made towards implementation of human rights commitments this week, including on harm reduction in particular. Global Commission is expecting an honest conference where the speakers really speak about what they are doing in their countries, the failures and progress. This platform for exchange is important. This is not happening in Vienna, and not all the countries are there. This honest exchange can happen here, and can allow for steps after UNGASS. We have another opportunity in 3 years with the end of the action plan on the issue. We can bundle our energy, experience and hopes for real change.

Monique: there is more convergence on human rights perspective, eg. harm reduction is quite universal. All over the world there are pilots except for some countries. This balance needs to be restored from law enforcement emphasis to health and rights. Human rights has been introduced as other issues under the UNGASS, and harm reduction under demand reduction – that is very odd. This dialogue shouldn’t happen only in Vienna because there the focus is so much on crime and money-laundering etc. What we have been trying to do including with Switzerland is to have different perspectives in Geneva, New York and Vienna in the debate.

Marie: we have moved away from consensus on 1998 on calling for a drug-free world, and many member states are supporting a rights and health-oriented drug policy. The SDGs are also helpful in contributing a development perspective. The outcome document is a disappointment but there are some small wins such as proportionate sentencing, mention of specific harm reduction interventions (though not the term itself). The roundtables in the week ahead will also be important for discussion, and shouldn’t be understated.

Andrea Huber, PRI: Hope that human rights issues will be discussed throughout the UNGASS not only in the roundtable on human rights. Please do refer to UNAIDS publication on ‘do no harm’, IDPC document on women and the Nelson Mandela rules.

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