Home » Side event: Unveiling injustice: Exploring the human rights impact of drug policies in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia region

Side event: Unveiling injustice: Exploring the human rights impact of drug policies in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia region

Organised by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights with the support of Amnesty International, the Eastern and Central European and Central Asian Commission on Drug Policy, the Eurasian Harm Reduction Association, Harm Reduction International and the International Drug Policy Consortium

Magdalena Dąbkowska, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. I have the pleasure to moderate this event. Many thanks to all our cosponsors. I want to welcome everyone in the room in Vienna and participants online. For those participating online, there is an English/Russian translation available. I am happy to see more and more side events here at CND on human rights, and on the EECA region. It will become evident why after this side event. Today we’ll focus mostly on economic, social and cultural rights. The reason for that is that the UN CESCR decided to issue a general comment on drug policy so it has been a good opportunity for civil society to come together, collect data and reflect issues from the ground. The other reason is that ESCR are those related to every sphere of every day life: access to food, water, housing, ability to be employed, conditions at work, education, medicines, and right to become a parent and maintain parental rights. Today we will see the situation in the region and how the every day lives and rights of PWUD have been affected.

Maria Plotko, Eurasian Harm Reduction Association. EHRA conducted an in person meeting in Warsaw and several consultations online with HFHR because there are so many issues related to ESCR affecting EECA. Some countries couldn’t participate but we are planning on publishing a big report with country profiles and case studies. During the consultations we focused on non-discrimination, right to work and conditions in work, social security, family rights, health, education, adequate standards of living and benefiting from scientific progress. People had difficulties in understanding what these rights mean to them. We spent a lot of time explaining and discussing that.

On non-discrimination, this came out when we were discussing all other rights. People are not using this article because they don’t have adequate legal representation. There are drug users registries which affect employment opportunities and other areas of people’s lives. Criminal records also affect all other rights in the ICESCR. Inter-sectoral discriminations also came up a lot, especially for women who use drugs (e.g. a person being a woman, migrant, living with HIV, etc.).

The second right we talked about was the right to work. We discussed termination of employment for using drugs or being under OAT, there are prohibited professions for PLHIV, there are issues related to criminal records. There are issues with inability to find employment because of unpaid fines coming from criminal convictions. So people don’t take legal employment because the money they make is taken for bail or to pay for fines. People under OAT also face issues because of opening hours that prevent them from working if they need to go for treatment every day.

The right to just and favourable conditions at work: there are many contexts that drug test people at work regularly, randomly, resulting in termination of employment. In Croatia having a record of a rehab treatment or visit to a psychiatrist years ago can result in negative results in a job application process. In Belarus, there are forced labour practices in areas where people use drugs.

Right to social security: in many countries of the region, health insurance is available for people who are employed. But finding legal work is incredibly hard as can be registration to the employment office. The system might be too strict and complicated for people to do it on their own. In Romania, PLHIV have access to treatment, but for those who do not live with HIV, they may not have access to hep C treatment. In Poland, you need health insurance to access ART. Now, there are lots of people from Ukraine coming to Poland and they can’t access ART. Obtaining state support is also difficult. There is no de facto discrimination but the system is so complicated that 80% of the work of social workers is to help people access state services. It also has to do with ID and supporting documentation to be registered as unemployed or a person living with disabilities. In some countries you have to be registered in the city to obtain any kind of social support. In Balkan countries this is a huge programme for Roma communities. In Hungary homelessness is criminalised. In Belarus, you are denied state support if you are a drug user.

The right to family life: the huge issue is the termination of parental rights. Various countries have articles in the law on parental rights due to drug use. In others, there is no law but it happens in practice. People for instance go to OAT and as it is a state programme they can be denied parental rights – so they avoid OAT. People with a history of HIV or drug dependence cannot adopt children in various countries. There can be mandatory HIV and drug tests before marriage in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and your partner is notified. HIV infection can exclude patients from IVF procedures, and there is very limited access to treatment facilities in the region which allow you to bring a child, which makes things very difficult for women who use drugs.

Right to adequate standard of living: access to shelters for women who are victims of gender-based violence is denied for women who use drugs.

Right to everyone’s access to health: the organisation of OAT services, working hours and location makes it difficult for people to access them, and there is no access in prison. There is lack of disaggregated data on numbers of PWUD which makes it hard to do advocacy for service access.

Right to education: the most striking example was from Hungary where drug tests are conducted at school and it can be a reason for exclusion from school. That’s why a lot of people have very low levels of education because of this type of exclusion.

Volodymyr Tymoshenko, Member of the Eastern and Central European and Central Asian Commission on Drug Policy. Human rights always have a balance between human rights and security for the state. Quite often the situation is that the state tries to make legislation that provides social security but human rights are underestimated. There are ways to 1- ensure safety from countries and 2- do not violate human rights, including for vulnerable groups and key populations. I speak about this because I used to be the one who developed such legislation in Ukraine and we always focused on safety for the state as a whole and sometimes, sorry to say, we ignored human rights. Now we need to review all that legislation and ensure a balance between state security and ensuring human rights for everyone. Now when I look at the reviews presented by Maria, I recognise Ukraine in almost all rights violations presented. I think there are at least 2 sources for human rights violations: 1- when the state ignores human rights issues to the detriment of security and safety; 2- general population related when some people violate the human rights of other people. I can bring an example; when HIV started growing in Ukraine 20 years ago, the general population started stigmatising PLHIV and tried to ensure the security of others. Public attitudes led to restrictive legislation. We see how state legislation grows from public attitudes. This is the same issue with PWUD. The general population blames PWUD for everything, including crime rates, and that’s not correct. When we look at statistical data, you can see that most crimes are committed by people who use alcohol but police and others still blame PWUD. In legislation, there is no strict legislation against people who use alcohol, but there is against PWUD. So what can we do with that? How do we approach the issue? We try to see PWUD as the same people of the rest of society, who have the same rights and opportunities to live their lives. They have some medical issues and may need to go to some health programmes, but their rights are the same. When I used to be the head of the national drug control centre in Ukraine, many officials asked me for help because some had kids who use drugs and they always tried to get help, but they tried to keep it secret. I always tried to explain that it’s the same medial issues as other issues. When you have other issues, you go to the doctor and that’s it. You should be able to do the same for drug-related problems and yet you can’t do that and their human rights are ignored.

Magda. Let me mention another issue from the Freedom House: lonely 17% of the population are enjoying freedom of expression in the region.

Mikhail Golichenko, HIV Legal Network. Possession for drug use and peer to peer distribution has long been criminalised. It’s deeply flawed to address the complex issues of drug use. It udnermineds human rights, including ECSR. Disproportionate use of criminal law creates barriers for their health and social services. Instead of focusing on harm reduction and rehab, resources are directed at law enforcement, exacerbating stigma. In EECA, draconian drug laws restrict activists and NGOs to disseminate harm reduction information and interventions, this violates freedom of expression and assembly in addition to the right to health. There are absurd scenarios that reflect the disproportionate criminalisation of people via drug policies. Activists and groups of PWUD face legal reprisals for speaking out, preventing meaningful dialogue on alternative policies and on harm reduction. We should encourage diverse perspectives instead of sparkling dissent. Instead of criminalisation, efforts should address poverty, trauma, lack of access to education and healthcare. Drug laws and policies should undergo impact assessments on ESCRs and their unintended consequences on marginalised communities. Policy makers can develop more humane and effective drug policies that prioritise the dignity of all individuals. Criminalisation is not only ineffective, it undermines fundamental rights and freedoms. We should prioritise health, harm reduction and treatment. We can then provide an equitable society for all.

Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Volgina, Global Network of People Living with HIV. I was listening to other speakers and unfortunately, the last people in line to receive food, evacuation buses are drug users. Those who are creating our own shelters and services are us. We’re peers, we help each other in a war situation. We try to work with humanitarian organisation, with the usual HIV services and social services. But in humanitarian situations we need more understanding, preparedness and measures to be in place so that it’s not just us trying to help each other. One point Masha was mentioning is the registrars of drug users. In occupied territories, this is exacerbated. People are facing even more repression. And we only know part of it. For those still under occupation, we don’t have access to the information. But we know what happened to Crimea and Donetsk. Nothing good happened there. People were caught, beaten, tortured, put in drug ‘treatment’, although I don’t know what kind of ‘treatment’ was provided. Often it’s a form of torture. One of the big pillars of Russian ideology is hate towards PWUD and the LBGT community. When this kind of Russian force is invading or influencing territories’ policies, our communities will be impacted. We will be the first to feel the repression. We have to think about how registrars violate rights – but how this will be exacerbated when we’re in the hands of Russia. Another issue is access to substitution therapy. It’s already complicated in the region, but it became a disaster when the war started. It was very harmful for the people who are undergoing treatment. We have to look at how prepared we are to respond to new needs and restrictions. Looking at Hungary, I was pretty shocked. When people came to Europe from Ukraine, we realised the situation in Hungary was awful. So we started telling people that if they were PWUD, they shouldn’t go to Hungary. We can see what is the attitude from these states towards PWUD. A very important part I wanted to stress from the community perspective is the war itself. The war usually comes with drug use. We have to start speaking about that. My husband who is a drug user, who had been clean for years. When he left for the army, everybody around him started using drugs. So what will we do when all the veterans come back from the war? There is a whole complexity of issues between PTSD and addressing drug use. If you look at treatment systems, PTSD treatment is here, drug dependence treatment is there, they are not working together. What I don’t want to see if for our heroes who are depending on us will come back to normal life, but because of the criminalisation of drug use they will end up in prison. It’s a great chance now, with all the things happening in the region, to look again at drug policies we have, to look at people who use drugs. We’re looking at attitudes towards people who use drugs. And we can change these attitudes and change drug policies.

Hélène Tigroudja, Member of the UN Human Rights Committee. I will be brief and it was a fascinating panel. I will share 4 points. I will start with the concept of drugs. There is a hypocrisy of the state here between how we treat alcohol and drugs. In France we have a wine culture, it’s part of our cultural identity. From a state point of you, if you talk about dry January, it’s something coming from the USA, not from us. But when you talk about drugs, you have a much more repressive approach. At universal level we don’t have the same approach on what’s considered as drugs, and as pills. Secondly, you started by saying that the EECA region needed attention when we talk about drugs. From the human rights perspective, we have a lot of information on a few countries, but not related to drugs and drug user treatment. We have individual complaints and jurisprudence on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly for example on Belarus, but nothing on drugs. At 4pm we have a briefing for NGOs to discuss this, and I call on NGOs to highlight these issues with the Human Rights Committee. So there is a deficit of information on drugs. Thirdly, when we think of drug users, drug trafficking, etc., civil society should translate everything you said in terms of civil and political rights, in addition to what you have already done for ESCRs. For me it’s important because at the Human Rights Committee we have a new concept around the right to a dignified life, where you can put all ESCRs. Some states are not happy with this open-ended concept, but it’s good because it includes ESCRs. You should also try and bring issues to the European Court of Human Rights. Recently the Court considered a very important case of a drug user from Italy. So even a Court that is quite conservative can move forward on this issue and be useful. From a diplomatic point of view, states don’t take ESCRs very seriously, but if civil society is also able to say that it’s about life, dignity, life, freedom, non-discrimination, it’s a way to say we’re talking about international obligations, not soft law. Finally, the CESCR is drafting a general comment on drug policy. I don’t know if you’re aware but in parallel it’s drafting a general comment on armed conflicts. I hope the two rapporteurs are working together to bring issues related to drugs in situations of armed conflict, humanitarian situations, etc. The same question was asked to the Human Rights Committee to draft a general comment on drug policy. For us, it seems like it is a bit too early, we only have minimal positions on drugs issues. But for other emerging issues, what civil society did (on climate change, corruption, etc.), is that they slowly convinced us of the relevance and prioritisation of drug policy, and that falls under the mandate of the Committee.

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