Thinking dignity and freedom this Human Rights Day

Each year on the 10th of December, the United Nations celebrates International Human Rights Day. In 2022, the theme for the day is ‘Dignity, freedom and justice for all’.

In January 2021, our program lead, Associate Professor Kate Seear, commenced her Australian Research Council-funded Future Fellowship, exploring the intersections between human rights, drug policy and gender. The project is situated in recent developments in global drug policy. In particular, governments and experts around the world are increasingly acknowledging the failings of prohibitionist drug policies. There is now a growing global movement to end drug prohibition. Crucially, many calls for drug law reform are driven by the idea that drug policy should be shaped by human rights. A key assumption here is that human rights can provide an effective normative framework to guide reform, and that human rights can help to instigate less punitive approaches to drug regulation.

This raises an important question:

if human rights are in fact an effective framework for the prevention of punitive approaches towards people who use drugs, why haven’t they prevented such practices?

There are several possibilities. One is that human rights regimes are less reliable for those that society considers to be ‘less than human’. Human rights regimes have not always protected the interests of those who fail to fit normative ideals of the ‘human’, including women, LGBTQI+ populations and First Nations people and some scholars argue that the ‘human’ in human rights is normatively male. People who use drugs, particularly those who are labelled as ‘addicts’, also fail to fit normative ideals of ‘the human’. A key reason for this is that they are thought to display behaviours (such as irrationality, compulsivity, and chaos) that are at odds with Western, liberal, masculine ideals (such as rationality, volition, and order). This project is concerned with exploring these issues: how do drug policy and human rights actually intersect, how is the human understood in this context, and what lessons might be gained from feminist or queer critiques of human rights when thinking through the role of human rights in drug law reform into the future?

As part of the project, we have now interviewed 30 parliamentarians and parliamentary advisors in Australia to explore how human rights and drug policy intersect in Australia. This has included some exploration of how they conceptualise dignity, freedom and equality for people who use drugs and what this looks like to them. We are still in the process of analysing these interview data, but our initial analysis shows that interviewees mostly equate dignity with free will and believe that human rights can help to restore lost dignity by reinstating peoples’ capacity for free will. As one participant put it, ‘the overarching objective in any policy on drug and alcohol addiction’ should be to ‘reinstall [peoples’] dignity’.

Most of those we interviewed had a very prescriptive view of what dignity looked like, sometimes equating it with abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. According to many of our interviewees, then, a key function of human rights is to restore volition and dignity, but here, a dignified life is characterised by a set of highly subjective, value-laden, and normative ideals. The significance of this finding is that it raises potential problems for those who are enthusiastic about the role of human rights in drug policy. Put simply, and at least in some contexts, human rights might be seen as a mechanism or tool for reinscribing normative ideals and reinforcing narrow, contested and potentially controversial ideas about what a ‘good’ or ‘proper’ life might look like.

In future work from the project we are exploring these ideas in more detail, as well as speaking to people who use drugs and drug activists about how they conceptualise dignity, equality and freedom. We look forward to sharing these findings in the next few months.

You can read more about the findings, presentations and publications emerging from the project here, here, here and here. Further findings will continue to be shared on this website and via our Twitter account.