Feature story

How harsh drug laws undermine health and human rights in Asia Pacific

01 March 2023

Rosma Karlina and Bambang Yulistyo Dwi live with their two young children in the rainy hillside town of Bogor, south of Jakarta.

“Sometimes we go to museums to introduce the children to history or feed the deer at the Presidential Palace. It’s simple entertainment but can teach the children to learn to love even animals,” Ms. Karlina said.

If their family life is traditional, their work life is anything but. Ms Karlina is the founder and Director of Suar Perempuan Lingkar Napza Nusantara (also called Womxn's Voice), an advocacy and care organisation serving women and transwomen who use drugs. Bambang, popularly known as Tedjo, founded the Indonesian Justice Action Foundation (AKSI). Since 2018 his team has provided legal aid and support to people who use drugs, and advocated for their rights.

Their workdays are a mix of community organizing, paralegal paperwork and responding to distress calls. A client reported her husband’s domestic violence. When the police arrived at the house, the husband informed the police of her drug use and the police arrested her instead.

The organisations successfully advocated for a man to be released from a compulsory rehabilitation centre so that he could access HIV treatment. Otherwise, he would have gone three months without his medicines.

The organisations have witnessed many examples of women living with HIV being faced with extreme scorn. A police officer once threw a pack of sanitary napkins into a woman’s cell instead of passing it to her, saying it was because he was afraid to be near her.

“Since 2018 I have seen many rights violations perpetrated by law enforcement officers—abuse physically, psychologically and even financially,” Ms Karlina said. “They extort families to pay to enable their loved ones to go home.”

The Rosma Karlina of today—nurturer and fierce advocate—evolved from almost two decades of drug abuse. She has been to rehabilitation centres 17 times. Rock bottom came during an 18-month incarceration for heroin possession.

“My family paid a lot of money to the prosecutors, but I was still imprisoned. I lost custody of my oldest child. The judge thought I did not deserve to be a mother because I was a drug user,” she recounted.

Tedjo also evolved from addiction to activism.

“I did drugs between 1989 and 2015. It has been a long journey,” he reflected. “When my life was a mess, I hurt many people. It was not easy to prove that I was better.”

The couple are leading voices on how harsh criminal laws for drug possession and use lead to rights violations against people who use drugs while also lowering access to health services.

A 38-country legal and policy analysis by UNAIDS and UNDP found that 14 countries in the region have corporal or capital punishment penalties for the use or possession of drugs. Some states have condoned extrajudicial killings for drug offences.  In 2021 an estimated 12% of new HIV infections in Asia and the Pacific were among people who inject drugs.

 “The war on drugs has created a lot of stigma, and a culture that views an entire community as criminals. When we access healthcare, we get treated as bad people,” Tedjo said.

Regional Coordinator of the Network of Asian People who Use Drugs (NAPUD), Francis Joseph, explained that in the absence of legally conducive environments people don’t have access to appropriate services.

“Healthcare providers and law enforcement agencies treat them with violence and abuse,” he said. “So they don’t want to come out the closet and say ‘I have shared needles and syringes and I need an HIV test’. Because drug users are not welcome in our health facilities that leads to them going into the shadows and staying there.”

Lord Lawrence Latonio, a Community Access to Redress and Empowerment (CARE) partner and law student noted that Philippines also criminalises the possession of what are seen as drug paraphernalia. This means that peer educators who disseminate clean needles and syringes have to be watchful so they are not apprehended.

Fortunately advocates successfully lobbied for the country’s HIV and AIDS Policy Act of 2018 to include protections for healthcare workers who provide HIV services. Part of CARE’s work is legal literacy training so communities understand their rights. CARE also has a network of peer officers working in different regions to support members of key population communities and people living with HIV with seeking redress in cases where there have been rights violations.

Twenty-one countries in the region operate either state-run compulsory detention and rehabilitation facilities for people who use drugs or similar facilities. These are a form of confinement where those accused of, or known to be using drugs, are involuntarily admitted for detoxification and “treatment”, often without due process. Conditions have been reported to involve forced labour, lack of adequate nutrition, and limited access to healthcare.

In 2012 and 2020 United Nations agencies called for the permanent closure of these compulsory facilities. But according to a 2022 report, progress on this issue in East and Southeast Asia has largely stalled.

“UNAIDS is working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to support countries to transition from compulsory facilities towards voluntary community-based treatment that provides evidence-informed and human-rights based services,” said UNAIDS Asia Pacific Human Rights and Law Adviser, Quinten Lataire.

UNAIDS Indonesia is working with Womx'n Voice to pilot a multi sector partnership shelter and education program for women and children in Bogor. Interventions include social protection, legal support, mental health support, HIV and health education and accompaniment to services.

Ms Karlina called for increased investments in mental health care, poverty alleviation and education. “We need proper assessments to better look at each situation and come up with an effective solution. Prison is not the answer. If you see us as humans, you will take care of us as humans,” she insisted.