Human Rights Day: Action on Rights of People who Use Drugs

From the Graduate Institute Global Health Programme newsletter

December 10 is Human Rights Day, marking the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. This year, Decmeber 10 saw a flurry of activity around the right to health, including a major new statement on the rights of people who use drugs. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Dainius Puras, published a powerful open letter to the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The letter received widespread media attention.

Prof. Puras called on the UNODC to do more to combat the “highly punitive and repressive state responses” to drug use. Noting how these punitive laws have driven people who use drugs away from HIV, hepatitis C and other essential health services, Dr. Puras called for all countries to decriminalize drug use. The letter noted widespread violence, the use of the death penalty and lethal force in the global war on drugs. It notes lack of access to pain medication and evidence-based harm reduction programs in many countries, and touches on violations of the rights of children. This call for decriminalization follows the World Health Organisation’s new guidelines for HIV prevention, which also calls for decriminalization of drug use and other HIV-affected key populations.

In the weeks leading up to Human Rights Day, other actors drew renewed attention to the right to health of people who use drugs. In the Asia-Pacific region, as part of the “war on drugs”, thousands of people are detained in compulsory drug detention centers for months or years. Human Rights Watch reports they are subject to torture, sexual violence and forced labor, among other abuses.  Detainees are often sentenced by police, without trial. In September, UNAIDS convened a meeting with 9 such countries which pledged to progress towards voluntary, evidence-based treatment. This followed on a new policy issued by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, which will no longer financecompulsory treatment programs. In October, based on a year-long series of consultations, the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) issued a consensus statement on health, human rights and the law “informed by the perspective of those catastrophically impacted by global prohibition.” Using quotes from community members, the INPUD statement emphasizes the fundamental right to respect for human dignity.

Similarly, the Special Rapporteur’s letter highlights the ways that civil and political rights intersect with the right to health. On Human Rights Day, the UN launched a year-long campaign for the fiftieth anniversary for the two human rights covenants: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Together with the UDHR, these make up the core of international human rights law.

While public health has sometimes viewed people vulnerable to HIV as objects of research, a human rights approach to health underscores how civil and political rights are fundamental to realizing the right to health. It places those communities in the center of the health response as active subjects who speak on their own behalf. Respect for human dignity of the full person emphasizes the ways that human rights are indivisible.


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