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Harm reduction and human rights


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Each month The Loop is featuring highlights of citizen journalism from the Key Correspondents programme.

This month Rajesh Khongbantabam from Manipur, India, reflects on human rights violations against drug users. He implores supporters of harm reduction and those working to uphold human rights to realise their inter-relatedness and join together. Rajesh works closely with SASO, an Alliance partner in India.

Human rights bodies must defend drug users
By Rajesh Khongbantabam.

Harm reduction is not only about drug use and services. It is a policy concept defining realistic goals for dealing with problems related to drug use. And, perhaps most importantly, it is about human rights.

In an attempt to have a drug free society, the majority of civil society organisations and human rights agencies have remained silent over invasions of privacy faced by drug users and their families, permitted by the “War on Drugs” launched by various anti-drug organisations and the law enforcers.

Manipur, a state in northeastern India, is infamously renowned for drug use, HIV, armed conflict, insurgency and volatile law and order, hosts the classic playground of innumerable rights violation.

In their enthusiasm to draw public support, many armed groups have issued dictates to people dealing and/or using drugs. Users are pursued and shot in their legs while dealers are killed. Often these dealers are long time users dealing in small quantity to sustain their dependency.

Not to be left behind, many anti-drug use/user organisations also sprang up, beating, tonsuring the heads and humiliating drug users, sometimes coercing the users to make a confessional statement, late published in the local paper along with their photos. Those organisation and people who have publicised lies through the media have now acquired a sort of license to act more boldly.

On the other hand, police and other law enforcers exploit the draconian drug laws and low social status of drug users to arrest users unlawfully without any incriminating substances, cite the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act unjustifiably, and disregard standard due process. Law enforcement extort the parents of drug users. When negotiations are made between parents and enforcers on the amount to be paid for the release of their wards, several drug users said that they were given drugs by officials in detention with the purpose of coercing them to accept false charges and silencing their complaints of mistreatment.

What is happening on the ground? Does official data reflect the ground reality? Too many human rights agencies have remained mute spectators to these gross violation of basic rights of people using drugs. Dialogues and cooperation between the harm reduction community and the human rights community is badly needed in Manipur, which is subject to conflicting influences from various civil organisations and armed groups. Protection of human rights should be an integral part of any harm reduction strategy. What could human rights group do to defend the interest of drug users? It is clear why the harm reduction community is interested in cooperating with human rights group. But why would the human rights group be interested in such cooperation?

Drug users as a social group suffer from deprivations and therefore have a legitimate claim to the protective services of the human rights community. Further, the “War on Drugs” also contributes to the erosion of the rights of the majority in addition to the drug users group. If the human rights community wants to counteract the erosion of these rights, it has to attack the phenomenon at its roots. But will the various rights agencies be willing to be a part of this endeavour?

If only human rights bodies could be more upright and humane for the cause of people using drugs.

View more articles by Key Correspondents.