Hard News by Russell Brown


Drugs and human rights

Had the leaders of the National Party contented themselves with simply promising more resources for police along with a long-overdue boost of $40 million for drug dependence services (including a very welcome 1500 new inpatient beds), their announcement today would have been quite admirable. But that, you'd have to guess, would not have suited their electoral purpose.

So instead, we had this:

In an extraordinary press conference following the announcement at the Higher Ground drug rehabilitation centre in West Auckland, Bennett said some gang members had "fewer" human rights than others and Prime Minister Bill English said it was good that New Zealand lacked a written constitution as it gave governments flexibility.

Police would be able to search the houses and cars of known gang members with a previous serious violent conviction at any time with no warrant under the new law, which Bennett admitted presented a human rights issue.

"It probably does breach the rights of some of those criminals but they have to have had a serious violent offence behind them already and a firearm charge and on the basis of that we are going ahead with it," Bennett said.

Asked point blank whether she believed criminals had human rights, Bennett replied "some have fewer human rights than others when they are creating a string of victims behind them."

It's a deep irony that these words were spoken at Higher Ground, a facility which exists to help its clients believe that they are human beings, with rights and responsibilities like all of us – a place where people who have gone lower than low participate in their own rehabilitation.

And it's ironic too, that a party seeking elected power would push in the opposite direction to the rest of the democratic world. As disappointing as the outcome document from last year's United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs was, one of the big wins in the document and the process that forged it was its call for member states to bring drug enforcement activities in line with human rights obligations:

Promote and implement effective criminal justice responses to drug-related crimes to bring perpetrators to justice that ensure legal guarantees and due process safeguards pertaining to criminal justice proceedings, including practical measures to uphold the prohibition of arbitrary arrest and detention and of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and to eliminate impunity, in accordance with relevant and applicable international law and taking into account United Nations standards and norms on crime prevention and criminal justice, and ensure timely access to legal aid and the right to a fair trial.

New Zealand signed up to this document. The National Party now proposes that we renege on that commitment by moving to deny human rights to certain people. In doing so, it would move us in the direction of Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte, whose bloody purge is literally based on dehumanising drug users. It's hardly police death squads, but it is a tiny step in that direction.

Yes, there are bad people in gangs, and some of them have been convicted of dealing or manufacturing controlled drugs. Some of them may have continued to do so and it's the job of the police to bring them to justice. But if they have served their sentences it is a breach of our Bill of Rights to indefinitely subject them to arbitrary searches.

Bennett's tidy demarcation of drug dealers and users into merciless baddies on one hand and victims on the other is also not reflected in the real world, but it appears it will be reflected in her role in charge of the government's new methamphetamine strategy. From the Herald's report on her appointment to that role last month:

The Bay's Te Tuinga Whanau Support Service executive director Tommy Wilson said the current system of criminalising people needed to change.

"[We don't need] task forces of police coming in," he said. "The secret is to reconnect them."

Mr Wilson said there were common factors between those in the region who had fallen on hard times.

"I've found the same set of circumstances and solutions with both homelessness and P users, and that is that they're disconnected people.

"Connection to your marae, your sporting group, your church. Put the resources into those organisations, and you'll get a change and answers.

In other words, the most effective solution to drug problems is making people feel more like citizens, not less.

The package announced today also includes a proposed new charge of "wilful contamination", which represents a doubling-down on the "meth contamination" boondoggle and represents another way of criminalising people with drug problems. It's hard to take seriously as a public health measure from a government that refuses to mandate that rentals meet basic health standards in other respects.

And there will be another thing we haven't seen before: drug dogs as a commonplace at domestic airports and ferry terminals. This is unlikely to seriously hamper the meth trade – the most likely travellers to be caught will be those carrying a little weed. For the rest of us it'll feel just a bit more onerous to travel.

Still, at least we know where Paula Bennett and her party stand. And in being "flexible" about human rights, it's not with the rest of the United Nations community.

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