A world-first ‘post–human rights’ framework for drug policy

Researchers at the GLaD program are conducting a new project funded by the Australian Research Council, designed to explore the value of human rights for reforming drug policy, especially in light of important critiques of human rights. The project will culminate in the development of a world-first ‘post–human rights’ framework for drug policy.

Since the early 1960s, international treaties have characterised certain drugs as illicit, prohibiting their use, possession and supply. However, global drug policy is currently undergoing a seismic shift. In early 2019, the heads of all thirty-one United Nations agencies released a communiqué calling for the decriminalisation of drugs and a move away from ineffective penal approaches. Importantly, the call for change noted that reforms must be shaped by human rights. The latest International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy recommend all countries undertake a ‘transparent review’ of existing drug laws and policies for their compliance with human rights, and subject all proposed new drug legislation to human rights ‘assessment’. In a local example, Australia’s National Hepatitis C Strategy also emphasises the need for human rights–based approaches to drug use.

These calls, while welcome, assume that human rights provide an effective framework to guide reform and will enable less punitive approaches to drug use. This has happened to some degree in Canada, where human rights law has been leveraged in a series of landmark legal cases to secure access to things like supervised injecting rooms and heroin assisted treatment for a small number of people – measures that are proven to save lives and greatly improve social, economic and health outcomes.

However, human rights do not always work this way. Seventy years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, millions of people worldwide still endure human rights abuses, such as forced drug treatment and forced drug withdrawal. If human rights are an effective framework to prevent punitive approaches towards people who use drugs, why haven’t they prevented such practices up until now?

One possibility that has yet to be explored by drugs scholars is that human rights are less reliable for those that society considers ‘less than human’. This is based on a ‘post-human’ approach to rights: one in which human rights are not ‘neutral’ and ‘universal’, as is often claimed, but where they instead reflect distinctly Western, humanist, masculine ideals. This ‘post-human’ approach suggests that human rights have not always protected the interests of those groups who fail to fit normative ideals of the ‘human’. People who use drugs are one such group: they are often viewed as compulsive, irrational and chaotic. Accordingly, they have long been thought of as less than fully human. For these reasons, people who use drugs might be seen as less entitled to (human) rights and protections. They may even seem to be more deserving of punishment.

In this light, can human rights really be harnessed to guide the future of global drug policy in more humane and effective directions? How might different ideas about drugs and the human be relevant to human rights processes? Why have human rights frameworks worked in Canada? And, if human rights are not an ideal framework, what might an alternative ‘post–human rights’ framework look like?

A new research project, led by GLaD research lead Kate Seear and commenced in early 2021, explores these issues, and works to develop the first ‘post–human rights’ framework for drug policy. We’re undertaking this research in order to learn more about:

  • how human rights have informed Australian drug policy in the past,
  • which ideas about drugs and the human have shaped these approaches,
  • whether such ideas are problematic or outmoded, and
  • whether human rights provide the best framework for guiding legal and policy reform in relation to alcohol and other drugs – and if not, what alternatives might look like.

The project will run for four years.

Through studying the ways in which ideas about drugs have shaped human rights in the past, we hope to generate new knowledge on the challenges and possibilities of human rights approaches for reforming drug law and policy, and to develop practical recommendations for targeted, best-practice drug policy and law reform in future.

We’ll be posting more about what we find as the project progresses, but in the meantime you can get in touch using the details on our contact page for more information.