Civil society resolve to defend people who use drugs in Southeast Asia

By Guest blogger

Gloria Lai is a Senior Policy Officer at the International Drug Policy Consortium, based in Bangkok, Thailand.

The election of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines in May 2016 - who had based his political campaign on the promise of a violent crackdown on people who use drugs and people involved in the supply of drugs - has led to the killing of over 7,000 people in 7 months.

One prisoner in IndonesiaYogi is spending 14 years in prison in Indonesia for possession of marijuana. © Vincent Rumahloine for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance 

In addition, over a million people have reported themselves to local authorities as either using or dealing drugs, many of them after being arbitrarily named by police on public listings of suspects.

Already overcrowded prisons have become even more congested. ‘Mega-rehabilitation’ centres are being built with plans to use them for the detention of people who use drugs. Efforts to initiate harm reduction measures (such as needle and syringe programmes and opioid substitution therapy for heroin users) are being stifled in Congress (the Philippines’ legislative body).

This is all in a country that before this latest war on drugs, already had virtually no harm reduction interventions in place, despite having the highest rate of HIV amongst people who inject drugs in Asia.

When the Philippines was landed with chairmanship of the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2017, concern grew amongst harm reduction advocates about the potential for this deadly violent approach to drugs to spread to other countries.

Assessing risk and advocacy opportunities

In response to these concerns, and with the support of the PITCH project, harm reduction advocates held a meeting in Southeast Asia to plan how to prevent and counter any damaging changes to drug policies in neighbouring countries, and to promote policies prioritising health, harm reduction and human rights as effective alternatives to violence in the Philippines.

This meeting took place in February 2017 in Bangkok, Thailand, where civil society advocates working in human rights, harm reduction and drug policy reform in Southeast Asia shared assessments of the risks involved in speaking out against these governments and possible advocacy opportunities.

Expert advisors from UN agencies specialising in HIV, drug control and human rights; current and former senior government officials; academic and civil society experts specialising in human rights and harm reduction advocacy in other regions; and donor agencies joined to offer advice.

It became apparent that there did not seem to be a major risk of widespread extrajudicial killing of people suspected of using or dealing drugs in other countries. However, a nationwide crackdown on drugs was launched in Cambodia in January 2017, involving the mass arrest and detention of people who use or supply drugs. A concerning increase in the numbers of people killed during drug-related police operations has also been noticed in Indonesia. Also recently, the potentially arbitrary killing by military officers of a minority rights activist in Thailand, allegedly in self-defence and in relation to drug trafficking, should also be noted.

Acknowledging need for action on multiple fronts

More generally throughout Southeast Asia, various challenges were identified. These included responding to the increasing use of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS). Real, up-to-date data on the prevalence of people who use ATS is unknown. Also, the provision of community-based treatment services for people who use drugs – as opposed to compulsory rehabilitation – is lacking.

In Indonesia, there is a target set of 100,000 people entering rehabilitation programmes, but sufficient community-based services are not yet available. There needs to be greater standards of care for drug treatment, along with support from law enforcement agencies to ensure a health-based instead of punitive-based approach towards people who use drugs.

Recognising positive changes

On a positive note, there have been inclusive drug policy discussions in Myanmar and Thailand, with some openness to discuss harm reduction approaches, proportionate penalties for people who use drugs, and the prospect of decriminalising drug use.

Significantly, in January 2017, Thailand adopted amendments to its drug laws to reduce harsh penalties, and removed the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking offences - although the criminalisation of drug use remains.

Looking forward, future actions for civil society colleagues, advocates and IDPC include:

  • First-time engagement with the Universal Periodic Review process (a UN human rights review mechanism where all member states come under review once every 5 years), starting with advocating for member states to submit recommendations for addressing human rights violations caused by drug policies in Indonesia and the Philippines, during the review of both countries in May 2017
  • Advocacy at global level (such as at the recent UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs) to raise awareness amongst member states of the need to ensure that drug policies respect and promote human rights, and prioritise health and harm reduction, and;
  • Use regional platforms (such as UN and ASEAN forums relating to HIV, human rights and drug control) to promote exchange of best practice and experiences from countries deliberating reforms, such as Myanmar and Thailand.

It is hoped that countries that have a more rights-based approach towards people who use drugs can help lead less progressive countries towards humane and effective drug policies in Southeast Asia.

See the CND blog; the latest blogpost by IDPC Executive Director Ann Fordham; and Thomas Cai from AIDS Care China's blog for details of what happened at the annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March 2017.