The new UN Political Declaration on Drugs, designed to guide drug policy for the next 10 years, lacks critically important measures for treating and stemming the spread of HIV, Human Rights Watch, the International AIDS Society, and the International Harm Reduction Association said today.
The groups said that respect for human rights and HIV prevention should be at the heart of the policy, but that critical elements had been stripped from the final declaration. They called on member governments to refuse to support the declaration, which is being considered at the high-level segment of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) this week in Vienna.
"Government delegations could have used this process to take stock of what has failed in the last decade in drug-control efforts, and to craft a new international drug policy that reflects current realities and challenges," said Prof. Gerry Stimson, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association. "Instead, they produced a declaration that is not only weak - it actually undermines fundamental health and human rights obligations."
What is at issue is a series of measures known collectively as "harm reduction services," which have been endorsed by UN health and drug-control agencies, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization. These measures include needle and syringe exchange and medication-assisted therapy (for example, with methadone), both inside and outside prisons, as essential to address HIV among people who use drugs. The groups noted that a wealth of evidence proves harm reduction is essential to HIV prevention for people who use drugs. The action was taken against the direct advice of UNAIDS, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the UN special rapporteurs on health and on torture.
Up to 30 percent of all HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa occur via unsafe injecting drug use. The groups said there is clear evidence that harm reduction interventions can halt or even reverse HIV epidemics among people who inject drugs.
"This political declaration fails public health," said Craig McClure, executive director of the International AIDS Society. "Coming less than 12 months after UN member states convened a high level meeting in New York to restate the international commitment to fight HIV, the denial of any reference in the declaration to life-saving harm reduction programs is unacceptable and unconscionable."
The political declaration also fails human rights. In country after country around the world, abusive law enforcement practices conducted under the banner of the ‘war on drugs' result in extensive, and often horrific, human rights violations. In addition, overly restrictive interpretations of the international drug-control treaties at national level result in the denial of access to essential pain medications to tens of millions of people worldwide.
Both of these issues were raised by the UN special rapporteur on health and the UN special rapporteur on torture, who wrote to the CND to urge explicit support for human rights within the political declaration. All member states of the UN have ratified at least one of the core UN human rights treaties, and the UN General Assembly has consistently stated that drug enforcement must be carried out in a manner consistent with respect for human rights.
"Given the widespread human rights abuses around the world directly resulting from drug enforcement, human rights must be placed at the heart of UN drug policy," said Joseph Amon, director of Human Rights Watch's health and human rights division. "But the political declaration makes scant reference to the legal obligations of member states under international human rights treaties, nor does it insist on respect for human rights in drug policy."
The international community should recognize that the current approach to international drug policy has failed, the organizations said. Concrete steps should be taken to set forth a drug policy framework incorporating evidence-based measures to address drug-related harm and the human rights obligations of states, and of the UN as an international organization, at its heart. This means supporting harm reduction measures. It means acknowledging that punitive drug policies don't work, and have taken a serious toll on the lives and health of millions of people. It also means acknowledging that we need a new way forward.
The groups called on member states not to lend their names to a political declaration that does not sufficiently prioritize the centrality of harm reduction and human rights within the global response to drugs, and join the call from other civil society organizations for further efforts across the UN system to find a more effective, coherent, and relevant response to drugs.