Know Your Rights, Exercise Your Rights

A number of recent policy documents have come out in support of promoting the human rights of drugs users. In Ireland, this is not just a nice idea, it is the law: the 2014 Human Rights and Equality Commission Act makes equal treatment and basic human rights a public sector duty. But old prejudices die hard, and some services and providers see only the drug user and not the human behind them. Therefore we must help them view the world differently.

So what are human rights? Here is an easy rule-of-thumb: if you are a human, you have a right to the same treatment, care, and dignity that should be given to every other human. This includes the right to:

-life and security of one’s own person

-highest attainable standard of health and access to care

-bodily integrity

-right to work in safe conditions, without coercion

-assembling, associating, and forming organizations

-protection of the law

not be discriminated against for any reason (gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.)

not be subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment

not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detainment

These sound fine on paper but what do they mean in practice? Organizations function through rules and procedures. While these can be very important for their operations, they often lose sight of the basic purposes and principles behind them. So it’s important to keep in mind what human rights look like on the ground.

The most obvious case is being refused treatment or some other vitally needed service. For example, many doctors worry about prescribing medication when they find out a person’s medical history. Medical services have a fundamental duty to treat pain, and all persons have a right to effective pain relief. This works both ways — persons who do not want a specific medication can request alternatives. They should never feel forced to take something they do not want.

This raises a less obvious issue: doing something you’re uncomfortable with. Trust your own feelings, because they provide a good indication when something is humiliating or degrading. Here’s a familiar scene: having to wee into a cup while someone is staring at you, giving you a time limit, and threatening to withhold or decrease your medication if you don’t comply. But remember, Ireland follows a health approach to drug issues, which means that methadone, needle exchange, and the rest are all medical services. No doctor would ever refuse to perform an operation if the patient didn’t provide a good enough blood sample. They would find another way. Services should provide their users with options, and if the only means available violates your dignity, it is not an option.

Participation in a program must be voluntary, that is, done without any threat, punishment, or less explicit forms of coercion like insults, nagging, or social pressure. This includes performing any sort of labor, for instance work details in detox programs.

Sure we all have to work, and many productive things depend on everybody to pitch in. Work is often very therapeutic, but only if you do it of your own free will. Forced labor is not work — there’s a different name for that.

Most importantly, personal safety and security means not suffering any form of violence, whether it is direct physical assaults, intimidation or threats, or emotional abuse. When this safety is threatened, you have a right to protection of the law. If the Gardaí are not taking your complaint seriously, they are not fulfilling their duty.

These are just a few examples. Readers will have many more, and should share them by writing in or talking to an UISCE representative. But it’s not enough to know your rights, you need to know what to do when they are violated.

Stay calm and stay focused!

The first thing is also the hardest. In a crisis, fear and panic can overwhelm us, and the frustration and hurt of being mistreated intensifies the feeling. Even if our anger is justified, flying off the handle allows the other person to see you as a problem rather than a person. Don’t you let them. When you’re feeling like cod on a plate, with the chips stacked against you, it’s time to regroup. Take a step back, take a deep breath, then take another. Focus on what you need, right then and there. Ask for what you need as simply as possible, without going in to long explanations or justifications. Ask what needs to be done to get what you need, but do not agree to anything you are unable or unwilling to do. Ask for options and alternatives, and always maintain your rights as a person. This might not do any good in the moment, but then you can take the issue higher.

Get help and get connected!

Every organization should have a process for making complaints. Start there, but keep in mind that you may have to go outside. If you think your rights are being violated, contact UISCE at the number or address on the back of this issue. UISCE representatives can often work directly with an organization to resolve an issue. They can also take a complaint to the Human Rights and Equality Commission, or find another group to help mediate.

Statement by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations Work on the World Drug Problem

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to address you today, to use this opportunity to encourage a shift of focus in tackling the world drug problem – a shift from an approach primarily based on law enforcement to one that, first and foremost, focuses on the human rights of drug users. My hope is that Member States will ensure that human rights are at the core of the outcome document of UNGASS 2016, which can provide firm guidance towards future action.

To read more on Human Rights and Drug Policy, check out:

Human Rights For People Who Use Drugs

Everyday people who use drugs have their human rights violated. UISCE worked with people who use drugs to identify the most common violations and made this poster to help people understand what their rights are and how to advocate for themselves