United Nations, Divided on Drugs

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Vienna hosted the 59th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), a high-level commission convened by the UN Office of Drug Control (UNODC) to discuss drug policy reform. Over ten intense days, country delegations, experts and community advocates like me met to negotiate wording of a document that will guide drug policies around the world for the next decade or so. The Outcome Document from these negotiations will then be agreed at the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs from 19-21 April at the United Nations in New York. Not all countries had representation at the CND in Vienna, raising legitimate questions about the inclusiveness and transparency of this process and whether all nations truly understand the urgency of this issue. Early on, it also became clear as country delegations spoke that we have some substantial work to do as civil society and community advocates. The Asia-Pacific Group Statement presented by H.E. Ayesha Riyaz, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Incumbent Chair of the Asia Group in Vienna, reflected unrealistic aspirations and political popular if poorly targeted priorities as it resolved to strengthen efforts to achieve a society free of drug abuse and address the specific needs of women children and youth within balanced and integrated policies. Evidence-based harm reduction responses for people who use drugs were not mentioned. India’s position as in previous years focused on international cooperation to stem the flow of funds from drug trafficking and other transnational organised crime. Most discouraging was India’s rejection of UNODC’s recommendation to offer evidence-based and voluntary treatment, rehabilitation and care as an alternative to punishment or incarceration to individuals charged with drug offenses. On a more positive note, India described a commitment to ensure the availability of controlled substances for medical and scientific purposes through the removal of the regulatory barriers for drugs such as morphine and methadone for palliative care, pain relief and opioid substitution therapy. I was able to meet the Indian delegation and raise some concerns about our country’s position and share documents including the report from the Regional Civil Society Consultation we was held to ensure community priorities would inform the CND and UNGASS processes, along with the International HIV/AIDS Alliance‘s position paper for the Special Session. I unfortunately doubt that they actually read either through to its end. Vietnam’s statement mentioned that the country carried out harm reduction interventions for drug users. It was encouraging to see this, even while the statement used stigmatizing language such as “drug addicts” and “drug abusers” and repeated ASEAN’s misguided Zero Tolerance approach against drugs. As the Outcome Document comes into focus, it troubles me that there are still many key areas that are ‘under consideration’ – most notably paragraphs that contain terms like ’human rights’ and ‘evidence-based.’ Equally distressing is the prevalence of the escape clause – ‘in accordance with national legislation’ – which allows governments to pick and choose how the actually proceed regardless of sign-on to the Outcome Document. The news is not all bad. I take heart that in the Operational Recommendations section there is agreement on prevention, treatment and care for HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and drug overdose through ‘medication-assisted therapy programmes’ and ‘injecting equipment programmes’ – compromise language for ‘opioid substitution therapy’ and ‘needle and syringe exchange programmes.’ While member states once again couldn’t come to consensus around the term ‘harm reduction,’ it was also heartening to see a commitment to involve civil society and affected communities in program development. In the meantime, our team at India HIV/AIDS Alliance has been actively engaged in the run-up to UNGASS. After much behind-the-scenes effort, Alliance India’s Community Action on Harm Reduction (CAHR) project manager Charan Sharma has been selected as a civil society speaker for UNGASS where he will share his grassroots experience during a plenary session in the General Assembly Hall along with four other civil society speakers. In addition, our Indonesian colleague Ricky Gunawan from the Community Legal Aid Institute (LBH Masyarakat) has also been selected to speak at the Civil Society Forum. Coming up soon, I will report from New York with updates and insights on UNGASS 2016.

 The author of this post, Simon W. Beddoe, is Senior Advocacy Officer: Drug Use & Harm Reduction at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

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