Harm Reduction International Conference: Strength in Solidarity (#HR23)

Naarm (Melbourne) was originally selected to host the International Harm Reduction Conference in 2021, and so this year’s global gathering to address human rights, drug policy and public health has been long anticipated. The global conference, attended by over 1000 delegates from over 80 countries, is an incredible opportunity to connect with researchers, practitioners, allies in civil society, health and social justice organisations, and the GLaD team were thrilled to participate. 

The event centralised First Nations voices, calling for the decolonisation of the oppressive systems through which punitive and harmful drug policies have been designed and sustained. There were passionate, inspiring presentations addressing these themes. For example, Pitjantjatjara and Nukunu man Professor James Ward, an infectious diseases epidemiologist and a national leader in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research, delivered a powerful call to decolonise harm reduction in Australia.

Decolonising harm reduction, Professor Ward argued

means deconstructing colonial ideologies of superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches. It means moulding harm reduction to the cultural values, paradigms and meanings that Indigenous peoples hold. It also means in essence, to disrupt the colonial experiment and intent. It may seem radical, but it seems plausible, ethically and morally the right thing to do.

The audience responded to Ward’s address with a standing ovation.

Throughout HR23, presenters spoke to the moral and ethical concerns that inform and determine the design and implementation of laws, policies and programs addressing drugs. This included impassioned (and tearful) calls for reform to the death penalty that some countries continue to uphold, the provision of harm reduction in custody and places of detention, interventions that address gender-based violence, and deeper, structural changes to the systems that sustain such atrocities and inequalities.

On behalf of GLaD’s  research team working on the post-cure lives project, Emily Lenton presented on a paper entitled ‘Hepatitis C data justice: The implications of data-driven approaches to the elimination of hepatitis C’. Her paper was a part of the Australian stream, titled ‘Infantilised and Under-represented’, a collection of presentations that sought to amplify subjugated voices in the fields of drugs research, policy, culture and service provision.

Emily’s paper argues for the need to ensure that health data surveillance systems preserve the rights of people with (a history of) hepatitis C, protect them from breaches in privacy, and ensure they maintain control over their health data. While the paper acknowledges the importance of eliminating hepatitis C as a public health concern and the aim of getting treatment to as many people as possible, we argue for the need to balance people’s right to privacy with their right to healthcare. A longer version of the paper, co-authored with kylie valentine and other members of the post-cure lives project team, is currently under review.

Judy Chang, International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) Executive Director closed the conference, and her call to be cautious about the medical model as ‘Framing drug use and dependency as a disease instead of a criminal offence does not automatically do away with control or social stigma. We’re simply swapping one type of moralising with another,’ resonating with our paper in that the race to eliminate hepatitis C needs to ensure that any new and novel approaches do not breach the rights of affected communities. You can read more about these concerns in our paper ‘Becoming posthuman: hepatitis C, the race to elimination and the politics of remaking the subject’.

If you want to experience or reexperience some of the conference, watch this short wrap up video.