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UN: Harsh Drug Policies Undermine AIDS Prevention and Treatment

Respect Rights to Life, Health of Drug Users to Stem Rising HIV Epidemics

(New York) - The United Nations should ensure that policies to control illicit drugs do not impede access to lifesaving HIV services, a group of public health and rights organizations said today in a joint letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other key UN officials.

“The UN has stated that drug control must be carried out while respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms,” said Rebecca Schleifer, advocate with the Health and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “But governments all over the world commit egregious human rights abuses in the name of drug control. Not only are these abuses horrific, they also undermine efforts to fight HIV and AIDS.”

Ás the United Nations marks the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26, it should be aware that efforts to control the use and trafficking of drugs are denying drug users vital services aimed at preventing HIV and AIDS, said Human Rights Watch, the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations, the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, and a group of more than 400 leading HIV, public health, and human right organizations. The letter urges the United Nations to “speak with one voice” and promote rights-based drug policies, stating that protecting the human rights of people who use drugs is a prerequisite to effective HIV/AIDS programs.

According to UNAIDS, nearly one-third of all new HIV infections outside of Africa are due to injecting drug use. UN member states have committed to providing “universal access” to HIV prevention, care, and treatment by 2010. Yet contradictions between UN approaches to HIV and AIDS, grounded in public health and human rights protections, and UN drug control policies, which focus on punitive measures, undermine efforts to provide HIV/AIDS and other public health services to people who use drugs.

Member states often mark the UN-sponsored anti-drug day with drug seizures, executions, arrests, and imprisonment of alleged drug users to showcase their drug control efforts.

But harsh drug enforcement policies undercut HIV prevention, care, treatment, and support for people who use drugs. Laws or policies that deny key harm-reduction interventions, such as methadone and access to sterile syringes, put people who use drugs at unnecessary risk of HIV. Crackdowns and increased enforcement targeting people who use drugs create a climate of fear for drug users, driving them away from lifesaving services.

In recent years, for example, China has marked June 26 with public executions of drug users. In 2002, the government carried out 64 public executions across the country, the largest of which was in the southwestern city of Chongqing, where 24 people were shot. Amnesty International recorded 55 executions for drug offences during the two-week period before June 26, 2006.

In Thailand, anti-drug campaigns – including its brutal 2003 “war on drugs,” which resulted in more than 2,500 extrajudicial killings, and the April 2008 launch of a new “war on drugs” – have driven many people who use drugs away from effective HIV prevention and AIDS treatment, out of fear of arrest and police violence.

“Thailand has acknowledged that the HIV infection rate among people who use drugs is ‘unacceptably high,’ and its official policy is to treat drug users as ‘patients,’ not ‘criminals,” said Paisan Suwannawong, director of the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group. “But in reality, police collect information about drug users from health clinics. And the government’s decision to revive the drug war has made many people who use drugs afraid to seek public health services that are theirs by right.”

Russia is facing an explosive HIV epidemic, driven largely by unsafe injection drug use. But Russian law explicitly prohibits the use of the most effective and best researched treatment approach for opiate dependence – methadone or buprenorphine maintenance treatment. Although UN agencies strongly endorse the use of these medications as an integral part of HIV prevention and treatment programs, top Russian health and law enforcement officials oppose them.

“Methadone is critical for treatment of opiate dependence as well as to prevent HIV for people who use drugs,” said Vitaly Djuma, executive director of the Russian Harm Reduction Network. “Denying this medication to people in need is like sentencing them to serious suffering or even death for injection drug use.”

“We will not achieve universal access to HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and treatment without protecting the human rights of people who use drugs,” the letter warns.

The letter calls on governments and the UN system “to recognize that good AIDS policy requires sound drug policy – —measures that address the drugs problem without impeding access to lifesaving HIV services.”

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