Drug policy landscapes: Understanding human rights imaginaries and drug policy in Colombia

Global discussion about human rights in drug policy reform is increasing. There are several studies that advocate for the need for human rights in drug policy. This advocacy often tends to describe how human rights and drug policy have intersected in the past, or makes a case for reforming drug policy through greater engagement with human rights principles. In several other contexts, claims are made about the potential for human rights to radically transform drug policy for the better, ushering in new and less punitive approaches. However, while references to human rights in drug policy have increased, there is little research into how, precisely, human rights can actually help to develop less punitive policies in drug policy. Perhaps more importantly, there is little research that explores how human rights feature in drug policy outside Western contexts. Work on human rights and drug policy in non-Western contexts is important, given that human rights might be imagined and applied differently in these contexts, with potentially major implications for drug policy reforms.

A new PhD project being undertaken by GLaD researcher Alejandra Zuluaga explores these issues. The project focuses on the intersections between human rights and drug policy in Colombia. In Colombia, the landmark 2016 Peace Agreement seeks to reform coca growing using a human rights and gender-based approach. Human rights and gender-based approaches are highly contingent and contested in some socio-political contexts, however, including Colombia. As Alejandra explains:

In Colombia, human rights are closely associated with social movements such as feminism and LGBTIQA+ rights, which many consider to be ‘dangerous’ and ‘radical’, as well as a threat to Colombian society.

This project focuses on what these associations and imaginaries – between human rights, gender, sexuality and drug policy – mean and do in the Colombian context.

The project seeks to generate new knowledge on the limitations and possibilities that human rights frameworks have to offer in drug policy-making processes, particularly in the Global South, where there is a lack of research on these issues.

Throughout 2022, Alejandra will be conducting textual analysis of key Colombian drug policy documents, which form part of the Peace Agreement, paying close attention to what is included and/or excluded in these policy documents. Later in the year, Alejandra will travel to Colombia to undertake in-depth qualitative interviews with coca growers and key stakeholders involved in the implementation of the Peace Process to document experiences, impediments, and barriers to access and implementation of such policies.

The project will contribute to a growing literature on human rights and gender in drug policy. The project raises important questions about the capacity of human rights discourses to create sustainable change in all drug policy contexts.