(New York) — A Global Fund for AIDS grant to a nongovernmental organization of drug users in Thailand could bolster the country's fight against HIV/AIDS, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch warned that the initiative could backfire unless the Thai government respects the right of drug users to obtain services for HIV prevention, treatment, and care.

The US $1,000,000 grant, announced on October 16 by the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, aims to protect drug users from HIV by expanding education and outreach efforts among drug users’ social networks. The Thai government has consistently refused to support such services. Worse, it has engaged in a brutal crackdown against people suspected of smuggling and dealing drugs, resulting in the unexplained killings of several thousand drug dealers since February.

Research by Human Rights Watch shows that anti-drug crackdowns can increase drug users’ chances of HIV infection. As with other populations at high risk of infection, such as sex workers and men who have sex with men, health experts fear that police brutality can push drug users into hiding and drive them from HIV prevention services.

“Violent crackdowns won’t solve Thailand’s drug problem, but they will fuel its AIDS epidemic,” said Joanne Csete, director of the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights program at Human Rights Watch. “Preventing HIV requires working respectfully with drug users, not trampling on their human rights.”

Widely hailed as a “success story” in the fight against AIDS, Thailand has undermined many of its earlier achievements on HIV prevention since launching its anti-drug initiative on February 1. During the first phase of the crackdown, Thai police reported that approximately 2,700 alleged drug criminals were killed. Human rights activists allege that the government adopted a shoot-to-kill policy. Local authorities reportedly drew up blacklists of suspected drug dealers and gave police chiefs short deadlines to clear names from the list. Thailand’s Interior Minister, Wan Muhamad Nor Matha, said of drug dealers, “They will be put behind bars, or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country.”

The Global Fund grant provides funding for peer support programs among drug users, information and education on HIV prevention, and measures to increase drug users’ access to health care and HIV testing services. It also aims to increase the capacity of policy makers to promote HIV prevention services for injection drug users. As many as 60 percent of injection drug users in Thailand are thought to be infected with HIV.

Human Rights Watch urged the Global Fund to closely monitor human rights abuses committed by the countries it supports. It recommended that the Global Fund demand an independent evaluation of the health impact of Thailand’s anti-drug initiative. Human Rights Watch also advocated that the Global Fund include human rights requirements in any financial assistance it provides directly to the Thai government and develop all future programs in Thailand with full attention to human rights.

“The recent Global Fund grant provides a welcome contrast to the Thai government’s spine-chilling statements against people involved in drugs,” said Csete. “The challenge now is to ensure that the grant gets results.”