Human Rights, Health and Harm Reduction

States’ Amnesia and Parallel Universes
Keynote speech delivered by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Professor Paul Hunt
May 11, 2008

‘Human Rights, Health and Harm Reduction: States’ Amnesia and Parallel Universes’ is the transcript of a keynote speech delivered by Professor Paul Hunt (then UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health). The speech focused on human rights and drug policy and contained some of the strongest comments to date from a UN human rights expert both in favour of harm reduction and against drug policies at the international and national levels that violate the rights of people who use drugs.

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Professor Hunt’s speech was delivered at the opening of Harm Reduction 2008: IHRA’s 19th International Conference in Barcelona, Spain on May 11, 2008. The speech began by listing some of the human rights abuses experienced by people who use drugs, and then went on to criticise the international policy environment that allows human rights abuses to occur with relative impunity.

Professor Hunt recognised the ‘amnesia’ of many countries which acknowledge their human rights obligations in one forum (such as the Human Rights Council) and then go on to ‘forget’ them at another (such as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs) - a situation that he described as ‘bizarre’. Professor Hunt then confirmed that drug policy must be carried out in conformity with human rights.

Acknowledging the necessity of harm reduction as an aspect of the right to health, Professor Hunt suggested that the overarching goal should be “a strong, accessible, integrated health system that is sensitive to the distinctive needs of all, including people who use drugs”. He encouraged advocates and activists to incorporate human rights mechanisms at the international level into their existing and ‘inspiring’ work in order to help to achieve this.