Moderator: What is the situation that people who use drugs are facing in your region? What are the main issues?
Bikas: Thank you for the question and for having me here today. I am very happy to be here, particularly in this session because this is the only session where I do not have to speak through an HIV lens. We are allowed to freely speak about violence.
Let me start by requesting a show of hands if any of us in the audience wishes to be identified as a person who uses drugs. [None were raised]. I’m glad that many of us in the room could actually be less aware about various issues of people who use drugs or the crisis our community is facing as we speak here.
You can see that I have written “Bullets, Wrong Policies and SILENCE” in my title slide. I will slowly explain about them.
People who use drugs have been facing at least three major crisis – first the over criminalization that has reached its extreme level of war on drugs, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detentions and torture. Secondly, our community is facing the epidemic of premature and preventable overdose-related deaths as a result of highly adulterated drugs and poly drug poisoning. The third crisis that people who use drugs have been suffering with is the blood and air-borne infections like HIV, Hepatitis C and Tuberculosis due to not having timely access to quality health services.
I hate to explain it in detail. Actually, I do not want to explain it in detail. I think most of us at least know what is happening in the countries like Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and now also in Sri Lanka. We are on a war. We are literally on a war in which our community has been brutally killed like animals. Everyday we lose our people. So many individuals have been killed. For me and for all the drug user community around the world, they are our friends and families but it seems like for others who also live with us in this same world, they have become numbers – mere statistics.
In terms of the torture and abuse of people who use drugs, criminalization has also resulted in the forced and compulsory detention in the name of treatment. It is estimated that at any given point of time nearly 500,000 people are being detained in the Southeast Asian countries. This is not because of lack of evidences. If evidence would be the solution then I would not have to speak here. There are piles and piles of evidences. For instance, the evidence that only 10-11% of people who use drugs may become dependent and may need treatment as a support was reported by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It was not a drug user group who came up with this evidence. However, without considering evidences people are arrested and put into detention centers for multiple years without fair trial.
The other serious human rights violations that we are facing is the forced urine testing. The test is supposed to happen in a clinical setting but untrained law enforcement officers are doing it out in the streets. It does not matter if the test result shows false positive. Instead of considering it an indicator to further investigate, they are using it as evidence to arrest and consequently put people into compulsory detention. It does not matter if the tested person had used drugs for the first time in his life or if the person had used any regular medicines from the pharmacy. Some regular medicines do have chemicals that are similar to that of crystal methamphetamine and may result in false positive.
People who use drugs face a lot of stigma and discrimination due to which they are socially excluded in many parts of the world. Sadly in Asia, the families are sometimes the very people who ask the law enforcers and detention staffs to arrest or kidnap their drug using son and daughter. The discrimination they face in the health care settings and other range of human rights violations can go on and this full session time would not be enough.
We have been trying to raise these issues. Our friends in the Philippines are trying to support their peers for early release from prison. All of us who are working as frontline human rights defenders have no safety and security. It is scary and terrible to advocate in a country like Philippines. The war on drugs is trending and has permeated the South and Southeast Asian countries.
Why do you think it is trending? There is one thing that is common across all these countries – election. Duterte was in his presidential campaign, Jokowi gave the shoot-at-site order when the election was approaching near, Bangladesh will have election in 2019 and similar case is seen now in Sri Lanka as well. Public in our countries do not know about drugs and mostly they do not share the sentiment for the dire situation of people who use drugs. There is a rise of populist politician leaders who knows how and when to take advantage of this fact by demonstrating their tough stance on drug problem. All you need to do is to blame people who use and sell drugs for all the problems of the nation.
Martin Luther King said that, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends”. In the last two years SILENCE is what is happening.
Our people have not only been killed by bullets, they have been killed by the wrong drug laws and policies, and they continue to be killed by the SILENCE of those who could have influenced to end these atrocities.