A world-first ‘post–human rights’ framework for drug policy: Improving social, economic and health outcomes

The challenge

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 (2019) recommend that 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 current National Hepatitis C Strategy (2018–2022) also emphasises the need for human rights–based approaches to drug use.

While these calls are welcome, they assume that human rights provide an effective framework to guide reform and will enable less punitive approaches to drug use. However, human rights do not always work this way. Seventy years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), people who use drugs 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?

The project

With new Australian drug laws in some jurisdictions now required to comply with human rights frameworks, this four-year research project is being undertaken in order to learn more about:

  • How human rights have informed Australian drug policy in the past
  • What ideas about drugs and the human have shaped these approaches
  • Whether such ideas are problematic or outmoded
  • 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, such as a ‘post–human rights’ framework, might look like.

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 – as they are often viewed as compulsive, irrational and chaotic, 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.

The method

The research, commenced in early 2021, consists of the following components:

  • Identifying and mapping Australian laws that deal with drugs
  • Identifying those laws that were subjected to human rights scrutiny in the four Australian jurisdictions that require it (Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Commonwealth and Queensland) and compiling and analysing all human rights scrutiny documents for those laws
  • Conducting in-depth interviews with experts in human rights assessment and interpretation, including members of scrutiny committees or parliament responsible for shepherding or scrutinising proposed laws in the four Australian jurisdictions as well as human rights experts and advocates.

The impact

By 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–based approaches for reforming drug law and policy, and to develop practical recommendations for targeted, best-practice drug policy and law reform in the future.

The results

This project will work to develop the first ‘post–human rights’ framework for drug policy. We will be posting more about what we find as the study progresses.

Project contact

Associate Professor and Future Fellow Kate Seear leads this project. You can contact the project team via our ‘Contact’ page.

Project supporters

The Australian Research Council funds this project through a Future Fellowship.

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