Side Event: Between human rights and drug control: possibilities and barriers for ending the stigma of drug users

Organized by the RIO Rusmisbrukernes Interesseorganisasjon with the support of Norway, the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Community Addictions Peer Support Association, Dianova International and the Association for Humane Drug Policies

Tuesday 14th March,2023


Mr. Kenneth Arctander (RIO Rusmisbrukernes Interesseorganisasjon): Your excellencies, Ladies and gentlemans colleagues and friends. First of all, I would like to apologize that we have all male panel. I it was not intention. I did my best but it was not good enough and I stand corrected in my own misery before you. I’m happy to see all of you. And I’m proud to moderate this side of it. That is addressing a theme that is particularly important to us about ending the stigma of drug abusers within the framework of human rights. I’ m the managing director RIO and  in the field of alcohol and drugs in various countries across the world to reform the policies and to decriminalize or legalize illicit substances. These efforts and the debates are underpinned by both the need and a demand for human rights. We highly appreciate that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was so clear in his remarks during the opening session, and we share his notions about the failure of the war on drugs. Every day we witness the brutal consequences of this work for the people who use drugs, their families, and local communities. People who use drugs have historically been stigmatized and marginalized. This has included decades of information campaigns around punitive policies and, quite frankly, discriminatory practices. It’s important to  change the policies, but also important to understand underlying conditions that have resulted in these harmful practices. Most importantly it is important to consider how to move forward and make meaningful change that lasts, which I hope we will discuss today.

Stigmatization is often a prerequisite for discrimination, such as not receiving the same standard of services as the majority population, which leads people who use drugs to suffer from having limited access to help. Governments and police sometimes have provided themselves with the liberty to infringe on their PWUD basic human rights. Sometimes this happens without the wider community, the group itself, or their advocates ,like me, necessarily being aware that these actions, which  constitute a violation of human rights.This might be due to the internalization of stigma. We’re now looking into the detriment of the semantic psychological, and social well being of the people who use drugs.  I’m happy to introduce our first speaker needs no introduction here is the Executive Secretary of the company to grow from the Council of Europe , Mr Denis Huber, The floor is yours.

Mr Denis Huber (Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe): Thank you very much .   This topic is very important, between human rights and records, possibilities and barriers for ending stigma for users. Stigma has deep cultural and social roots. It influences how people see each other, as well ashow people see themselves. When you mentioned access to health care, it’s important that we also have to address unexpressed needs for care treatments for those who are their own victim of substance . Another aspect of stigma for PWUD may lead to self stigmatisation, because they dread and because they’re young,because you’re old, because they use drugs. . So I think we have to it’s a very complex issue, which has to be treated in a multi faceted way.Now, what can we do to address such an issue? The issue is complex, but the answer is simple. Make sure that all people enjoy fully their human rights. Of course, it’s easy to say, more difficult to implement in the popular group.

Human rights is the main focus of our work. We have recently adopted two statutes. The new legal framework for the working group has been adopted in 2021 for the city’s anniversary.. Yet the main focus of human rights with more given more recently.  We had a ministerial meeting in Lisbon, and it has been confirmed that a public health and human rights centered approach be applied, and a more human response  to jobs, addictions, and related disorders is central to the world. Another important issue because when you want to make sure that people are free to enjoy human rights, that they work closely together with civil society, And that’s also one of the reasons why I’m thankful for the invitation. In fact, human rights and participation of civil society are contested issues for all the work of the body.

We have also adopted the New Work program, which has four main priorities: promoting drug and addiction policies in conformity with human rights; safeguarding democratic societies by addressing addictions that impact autonomy; protecting the rights of persons who use drugs ; and finally, reducing the availability of illicit drugs and preventing the production of precursors. There is a specific mention of moving away from stigma and towards inclusion. We have also recently organized a seminar  around a dignity sharing perspective, which has a mobilizing potential.  This showed the importance of meaningful engagement, and the need for continuous engagement with people with lived or living living experience in all aspects of policy and program development, legislation, and regulation, and the delivery of services to ensure that needs are met without unintended consequences. It is important as our sector involves society in the policy program development stages, and civil society can and should actively contribute ot this.  It is important as our sector involves society in the policy program development stages. Civil society can, and should, actively contribute and program development at the municipal, national and international level of stigmatization.

The concept of substance use and health was introduced by one of our partners NGO Community addictions peer support Association, where there has been a new inclusive and non stigmatizing way to talk about substance use and promote the health of people who use substances. The understanding of human rights is being a central part of substance use cases. The determinants of health are important and not addressing the underlying causes of substance use disorder may hinder the ongoing success of treatment and recovery from law enforcement, and hence, the shaping of culturals viewpoints and policies that institutions have had on people who use substances. Further support will be provided for those in law enforcement and healthcare who may be dealing with substance use issues themselves. So these are only the key messages and I invite you to participate tomorrow in the workshop. And to conclude, I was speaking about isolation at the beginning. I think it’s the big challenge for people who are victims of stigmatization, because human beings need interactions with other human beings, and no one deserves to be isolated for using drugs.

Mr.Zaved Mahmood – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Criminalization of personal use of drugs hinders access to treatment, and can block access to controlled medications needed for palliative care, and leads to overcrowding as well as increased transmission of BBV in prison.  Evidence indicates that decriminalisation together with prevention treatment measures reduces drug induced mortality rates. We can see that cannabis has been regulated in many countries, but still many countries are not permitted to do so.  We have also noticed that the criminalization of the prison population in the world, all over the world, it is not just a problem in the global south. Overcrowding in prisons can also increase the possibility of transmission of blood borne diseases like HIV, and other diseases like TB.

A report came out from High Commissioner office or even human rights mechanism and also a council of Europe recently released aroundl human rights standards reform processes, which was led by the Scottish parliament. So that was very interesting to look at that how also in the European region, this legislation to rectify human rights violations.

Let me come to that point that even entities within the UN Human Rights mechanism, different treaty bodies, economic social cultural rights committee, which appointed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, then Committee on the Rights of child, the CTO committees, which deals with discrimination against women, and also Human Rights Committee, monitors the international covenant on civil rights, all of these tests for decriminalization of drug use.  We have seen in Canada, the legalization of cannabis and that they have developed their argument on the basis of that prohibition. And also, this morning, I was in one meeting where our colleagues presented the international guidance and human rights in draft policy in that guideline clearly mention that each member states our countries may utilize the flexibility of the convention draft convention for regularize, and also decriminalize the drug use. Using the flexibility in the draft convention is important to us, and to use that flexibility for decriminalization.  This is argument also put forward in that study or reported as per the site and origin. It was part of the tree reports  established by the government. In that report, also I noted that this flexibility of the draft convention was very highlighted and try to use for that argument, criminalization.  That convention allow the decriminalization, we’re not going to violate the draft convention.

Let me now read out a few committee observations and recommendations to provide evidence for harm reduction services . First, to provide appropriate health, psychological support to the Aboriginal/first nations people. Secondly to address the debt, deficit, consider alternative to using that do not their absence for child rights committees. In many countries we’ve heard that when children are criminalized, it can affect their whole life . So it is definitely important that it is for the protection of the child rights for future generations. Instead of penalizing them, we should be providing them support and helping them move forward – a much better solution than instead of criminalizing. Thirdly, the UN Special report that calls for decriminalization.  This morning I was in an event where Ghanaian Minister talk about this, which also a few other countries in Latin America, also Mexico, Colombia and few other countries have explored. It would be good to collect and share the experience of decriminalisation with our defined stakeholders, including government officials also what’s going on in the globe. That would be important.

On that note, I would like to mention a few more documents. I think useful tool for all of us to look at even composition drug policy, which we have discussed many times. We are particularly concerned that criminilisation of drug use contributes to the world population prison population. One estimate shows that the question of prison population in the world in the incarcerated is one in five are incarcerated for crimes involving drugs. If we want to address the over incarceration and the prison system, we need to consider decriminalization which is also mentioned in the international guidelines and human rights and drug policy.

Lastly, in Geneva there have been eight principles on criminal law and human rights that have been published. Our office and others we have contributed to this.  This not only mentioned decriminalization, but also other intersectional issues such as same sex marriage (or others), LGBT rights.  It is necesary to understand then interconnection of these issues for marginzalised people, as  identity, intersectionality need to be understood in the context of all my points today, thankyou.

Mr.Eivind Digranes (Advisor for the Norwegian Institute for Human Rights): So as Kevin said, we  released a report last year on human rights. The purpose of our report was to raise awareness of the state’s human rights obligations and some of the states that human rights obligations in the field of illegal drugs, and assess how these are implemented in in Norway. I’m not going to go into all the details of our course right now, but it is available on our website, where can also find in English summary there was recently released. And as part of our reports, we have consultations with a number of civil society organizations and experts.  While this was fascinating, despite disagreements on a number of thingsof course, there was one kind of common theme that almost agreed on – was that people who are using drugs are stigmatized in civil society.  That was kind of very, very interesting to see how that came up in all these consultations.

So stigma was of course, kind of became a common thread. While we haven’t identified the causes, it was safe to say that stigma is an important part of several places, a key role.  I think that there are certain kinds of ways that stigma can impact human rights, impacting that fundamentally challenge, human dignity.  I think that human dignity is a building blocks for human rights. That’s why we have fundamental reasons why we have these , and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The preamble recognize the inherent dignity, and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. So I think that fundamentally this also impacts how you view yourself in society and whether you feel included, whether you feel the dignity, whether you feel like a whole person.

The other area where stigma might impact some people who use drugs is that it can reduce health and health seeking behavior. Modifications and control measures can reduce these negative impacts among people using drugs. This can worsen health conditions and how PWUD regard and access health services. Feeling  marginalized  can make someone feel less willing to seek medical attention when they need it the most. There’s a third way , which I think maybe has been partially overlooked is that I think that there’s also a danger of stigmatizing attitudes might lead also to discriminatory practices. We know from other marginalized groups that stigmatizing conflicts can contribute to discrimination. There is also the need for improved legal protections against discrimination for people using drugs. Now, as I understand it, that the committee is looking into writing, general comments on drug use and human rights. So, if that is correct and that it’s also very interesting. So we’re gonna look also at the region and national situation, legislation in Northern Norway, people suffering from drug addiction can have some sort of protection against discrimination. But there’s reason to question whether this  is is effective enough and what  it covers, and with what kind of protection. I think that we need to acknowledge that use of punishment impacts the status or attitudes towards the PWUD and contributes to stigma. This is not a normative statement, this is a factual statement. But  irregardless of one’s opinion one might have on criminalization for decriminalisation, human rights needs to be followed, even if drug use is criminalised, you don’t lose rights. It’s interesting in the drug field where you have this idea that people using drugs, do not have to rights. This idea has kind of lingered for a long time, and interferes human rights. It will also be interesting to see more work from international human rights bodies. I think that we need to see more practice from UN treaty bodies and European Court of Human Rights . It will be interesting to see if there’s more kind of developments in what the conventions demand when it comes to legal protection against discrimination.
Mr Gord Garner – VP for CAPSACommunity Addictions Peer Support Association: So, I will say thank you to all the speakers and thanks for the invitation I’m not part of the Canadian delegation, I live on Turtle Island in the country called Canada. I currently dwell in a territory that’s unceded. I’ve done a lot of harm to people in my life. I’m not very educated, so I won’t have a lot of data or information for you to tell stories in my live long enough and had enough experiences that I’ve learned a few things I want to bring lots of this table today if I can. And I guess I want to start off with just recognizing, I haven’t had any substances today, and so far I hope not to. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But that’s me and my life. A lot of people using substances aren’t seeking health care for their substance use, and so they’re not gonna be any need for health care on their substitute. So we want to look at what that might feel like and all the people out there like most of the people, almost all people using substances that avoid healthcare systems.

So this idea that is if you’re looking at stigma and discrimination, we are looking at fear. Why are we scared people? Why are they afraid of us? Whatever that is crazy discrimination is about the other person’s fear, and when you’ve been discriminated against, and that’s treated it’s really hard to be kind to those… who did it to you? I think part of that is recognising that we’re trying to bring comfort to those who are afraid, to bring a sense of safety to others. Because when we feel safe we listen.  And we have to recognise that people have been mistreating us because they have a right to. Do you ever see the parent, when the child is crossing the street? When we’re afraid, other stuff comes up. It’s a comfort to many of us to be angry about this. As long as we’re angry we’re not sure anyones gonna stop being afraid of us. Like I said i’m not very good at this kind of stuff.

So, I go to the grocery store every day. And I get a cart. Alright, this is how  petty i am. I’m only about six feet away, and i feel like someone is in my way. Then i get to the cash register, and i’m struggling to get peaceful. So when we look at human rights, its like, be respectful, don’t hurt anybody. I encourage everybody, that if we don’t get everybody to stop at once, maybe you should stop yourself in the grocery store.

The other thing is I’m in a deal with myself, when my dreams come true is when there’s a moment in my life where everybody in the world is being respectful to the person in front of them. So in a moment to moment basis, i want to be check into to see that i won’t blow the moment. I’ve had to learn things from other people, because i’m a slow learner its’ taken me a long time, i hope you’re sharper than me.

Chair:So, then we moved through all of the speakers I have four minutes left so I think I might have time for one maybe two questions, so if there is a question –  yes, you.

Question: In Norway there has been, and I think this can be transferred to other countries as well. Attempt to divide users into a binary system, you have the recreational users and the “addicts”. We all agree that we should help “addicts”, but why isn’t their place for people who use drugs recreationally . I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this isolation of the recreational users, and the role of that, sort of, how would that affect their future, how does that affect their potential for becoming “addicts”, and is there any value in the binary system?

Mr.Zaved Mahmood – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: We do not use the word “addict”. Language matters, this word “addict” comes with discrimination. There’s a distinction needed between PWUD and people who are dependent on drugs. People who use drugs wether it’s for recreational purposes or other purposes- we don’t say there’s a need for a discrimination between the two – but its important to differentiate according to the type of harm reduction services that are needed. Decriminalisation is for any type of use of drugs, i dont want to differentiate between recreational/and those that are dependent. Our positions if for all use of drugs to be decriminizatled. Language matters, please do not use the word “addict”.

Question: I wonder if the panel agrees that problematic drug use should be viewed  first and foremost as a health condiction?

Gord Garner – VP for CAPSACommunity Addictions Peer Support Association: So we’ve developed a framework a lens that we’re building a framework called substitute concept and the idea was we’re not debating whether people use substances were debating whether we’re taking care of each other’s health around using substances console health framework is really important. The other things in terms of social uptake is natural systems and increasing support for anything that attach to help out don’t even though oh yeah it’s for health and go along, rather than trying to explain complex,

Mr.Zaved Mahmood – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: It’s really important that framing it from a health perspective, but we need to frame it as a right to life. This is an issue of the right to life and that the Human Rights Committee which monitor the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. in that context. it is important that the skeptic appointed major institutions will address the societal  condition such as HIV and the prevalence of substance.

Mr Denis Huber (Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe): Yes, I think it’s important to mention the right to connect the right, the right to the right life, because the right to life is not only the right survive and have a decent life.we have recently created the self assessment human rights too where member states, and other acthere states better states but also other actors, Parliament’s civil society actors can check to questionnaire, how far they are drug policy is connected with the human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, and I nk I would like to invite you to make use of this tool, because I think the results may be quite interesting.

Chair: A round of applause for the panel. I’d love to thank all of you for coming, and all the speakers for their valuable contributions.


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