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HIV activists fear UN 'War on Drugs' conference is already doomed

Luis Robayo / AFP | A woman prepares to inject heroin in Colombia, one of the countries calling for an urgent rethink of international drugs policy.

On April 19, the UN is set to hold its first major conference on drugs policies in nearly 20 years. But activists are warning that certain member states are clinging to status quo policies that have failed in the past and will fail in the future.


In 2012, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, countries suffering rampant violence, addiction and disease as a result of the illegal drug trade, in desperation called on the UN to host the first international conference on drug policy since 1998.

The UN General Assembly Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, which was due to take place in 2019, was duly brought forward to April 2016.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the 2016 UNGASS to be a “wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options”, while promising an inclusive discussion that considers the perspectives of all stakeholders, member states, UN agencies and civil society

But campaigners, NGOs and civil society groups fear the UNGASS will do little beyond re-affirming a conservative status quo, while perpetuating misery and instability in some of the world’s most fragile states.

Across much of the world, the War on Drugs (a US term for the anti-narcotics campaign employed since the 1970s) remains a purely punitive venture.

It is blamed for entrenching organised crime and violence, encouraging the spread HIV/AIDS by denying users in many countries access to clean needles and Opiod Substitution Therapies (OST) therapy, while needlessly criminalising and incarcerating addicts.

‘Devastating failure’

Advocates for reform are dismayed by the UNGASS “outcome document” (which is not legally binding but will set the direction and content of the discussions), currently being drafted by the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna.

They say the document is devoid of any meaningful measures to change what they insist is a failed policy, while making no explicit reference to “harm reduction”.

This is despite a report released Monday by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) that unequivocally states: “Scaling up proven interventions including needle syringe programmes, opioid substitution therapy and antiretroviral therapy as part of a package of related health services would represent a major step towards ending AIDS as a threat to public health by 2030.”

An open letter published by the International Drugs Policy Consortium (IDPC) on March 14, signed by nearly 200 charities, NGOs and civil society groups, blasted the CND’s latest draft of the document, saying it had failed to take into account any progressive ideas – even those made by UN agencies.

“Rather than considering ‘all options’, the draft simply reaffirms the current approach and is devastating in its failure to acknowledge the damage of punitive policies,” the letter states.

“The current draft is not a balanced reflection of the formal UNGASS submissions and recommendations made by UN agencies,” it continues. “Many of these submissions explicitly call for ending the criminalisation of people who use drugs, but this point has been excluded from successive drafts of the outcome document.”

The statement adds that “there is no acknowledgement of the need for a harm reduction response to drug use … despite the fact that the European Union and multiple countries of Latin America and Africa have called for its explicit recognition”.

Hard-line policies

Polarised attitudes between member states on drugs policy inevitably make it difficult to form a coherent global policy, especially while the UN funds anti-drugs programmes in many of these countries to the tune of billions of dollars.

Countries such as Russia and China (both members of the UN Security Council), as well as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are far from ready to relax their hard-line policies.

Their weight and influence is being felt in Vienna as the CND prepares its “outcome document” ahead of April’s UNGASS. Harm reduction is a particular case in point.

Russia, for example, has such strict anti-opiate laws that morphine, widely available to doctors in most western hospitals, is severely restricted, even for patients suffering the extreme pain of terminal cancer.

OSTs such as methadone, meanwhile, are completely illegal in Russia, where there is not one publicly-funded needle exchange programme because officials maintain that they increase injecting drug use despite evidence to the contrary.

HIV explosion in Ukraine

The UK-based International HIV AIDS Alliance, which signed the IDPC letter, has highlighted the impact of Russia’s intransigence in Ukraine, where as many as 30,000 people rely on HIV prevention services in the war-torn east of the country.

When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, OST and needle exchange services stopped overnight, leading to a rise in HIV infections, according to the Ukraine-based International Renaissance Foundation.

In the rebel-held eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which is heavily influenced by Russian interests, methadone supplies will run out by the end of March, HIV AIDS Alliance said.

“Drug users, in desperation, will seek out replacement illicit drugs,” the charity said in a statement. “HIV and overdose risks [will] rise dramatically as a result.”

In the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine that includes Donetsk, an extra 495 new cases of HIV were detected in 2015, according to the HIV AIDS Alliance.

It is a situation that could easily be avoided, according to Susie McLean, Senior Advisor Drug Use and HIV at the HIV AIDS Alliance, who pointed to successful harm reduction programmes in countries such as Australia, Viet Nam, Ukraine, Malaysia, China, Portugal, Mauritius and Switzerland.

“We will not end AIDS by 2030 unless countries commit to evidence-based harm reduction policies,” she told FRANCE 24. “It is vital at a global level that UN institutions like the CND commit to language that explicitly backs harm reduction and that such language is included in the outcome of the UNGASS on Drugs process.”

A final draft of the “outcome document” is expected to be published within a week, but it is unlikely to be substantially different to the latest draft.

The UNGASS will take place in New York from April 19 to 21.

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