New research on how human rights processes manage alcohol, other drugs and gender

We are excited to announce the publication of the first article from the ARC-funded project, ‘A world-first “post-human rights” framework for drug policy’.

Co-authored by GLaD program lead Kate Seear and project officer Sean Mulcahy, the article is titled ‘Enacting safety and omitting gender: Australian human rights scrutiny processes concerning alcohol and other drug laws’. It offers preliminary insights from the project on parliamentary human rights scrutiny of proposed alcohol and other drug laws and how these processes enact safety fears whilst omitting gender concerns.

Published in the international journal Contemporary Drug Problems, the article addresses a gap in the research on whether human rights mechanisms can actually instil a normative framework for guiding drug law reform in a more humane, less punitive and less harmful direction. In particular, it explores how one human rights mechanism – the ‘parliamentary rights scrutiny process’ – deals with alcohol and other drugs, by examining how the four Australian parliaments that have dedicated human rights scrutiny mechanisms audited proposed new laws that deal with alcohol and other drugs for their human rights ‘compatibility’. In examining the scrutiny processes for these proposed laws, we found that laws that would limit the rights of people who use alcohol or other drugs were routinely seen as justifiable on the basis that alcohol and other drugs were inherently ‘unsafe’. Crucially, safety was conceptualised in a gender-neutral way, without regard to the potential role of gender in the production of harms, such as family violence or sexual violence. Instead, such problems were regularly constituted as consequences, simply, of alcohol or other drug consumption.

Included as part of a special issue dedicated to outgoing Contemporary Drug Problems editor David Moore, the article builds on Moore’s pioneering work on how the causes of violence are constituted across different settings, including research and policy, and places it in conversation with Carol Bacchi’s work on ‘gendering practices’ and John Law’s work on ‘collateral realities’. Together, this work suggests that, in research and policy on violence, men and masculinities are routinely obscured, displaced or rendered invisible. We found similar problems in the parliamentary rights scrutiny process, and draw attention to the limitations of these human rights process when it comes to gender. Typically, the scrutiny processes we studied reproduced normative assumptions about people who use drugs and the role of substances in social problems, while obscuring the role of other forces in the production of harms, such as gender.

We recently presented this work at the Coimbra International Conference on Human Rights. There, we noted that the process of parliamentary human rights scrutiny is admittedly just one way that human rights considerations might be brought to bear on alcohol and other drug laws. As Kate explains:

Our analysis suggests that there are serious limitations to what scrutiny processes can achieve, at least in terms of how rights deliberations presently unfold. There is an urgent need for more work in this area, and our project will explore other aspects of how human rights and drug policy interact over the next three years.

Citation: Seear, K, Mulcahy, S (forthcoming) ‘Enacting safety and omitting gender: Australian human rights scrutiny processes concerning alcohol and other drug laws’, Contemporary Drug Problems