Health and human rights-centered drug policies

NEW RELEASES - At the recent UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, delegates and negotiators benefited from the input of Geneva’s human rights and health mechanisms. How can Geneva’s participation in the drugs issue be sustained in order to find the right responses to addressing illicit drugs, while upholding human dignity and protecting public health?

Introductory remarks
•    Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland and Minister of Home Affairs, Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy
•    Michael Møller, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

Keynote speech
•    Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy

•    Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Adjunct Professor of International History, The Graduate Institute, Geneva

•    Amb. Bente Angell-Hansen, Chair of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs
•    Michel Kazatchkine, former Executive Director, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria
•    Maria Cattaui, former Secretary-General, International Chamber of Commerce, Switzerland
•    Gilberto Gerra, Chief of Drug Prevention and Health Branch, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
•    Amb. Sabrina Dallafior, Deputy permanent representative of Switzerland to UNOG
•    Craig Mokhiber, Director of Development and Economic Social Branch, OHCHR
•    Shekhar Saxena, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, WHO


Introductory remarks and keynote speech

Ruth Dreifuss started off underling the need to implement services that support and save people. The main concern nowadays is: how do we deal with drug use within the poor? To efficiently tackle these issues, Mrs. Dreifuss stressed the importance of a full coordination between Vienna and Geneva.
Michael Møller highlighted the fact that over 29 million people are estimated to suffer of disorders for drug use. The Human Rights Council itself has discussed the issue of drug use for a long time in relation to human rights. Drugs are in fact a horizontal issue that touches upon many areas. All the SDGs are interconnected and Target 3.5 won’t be achieved in isolation.

Kofi Annan initially reported the words of President Santos, recently awarded with the Peace Nobel Prize, who stated that drugs are a “global problem that requires a global solution.” He then proceeded to point out that international policies currently in practice have led to “unintended consequences” (for instance, the creation of criminal organisations.) Punitive measures have not worked; instead, they have resulted on massive incarcerations. In some countries, governments have destroyed more lives than drugs. Instead, the wealth and healthcare of mankind is the actual aim. What policies would enable governments to counter the harm that drug use causes? Mr. Annan put forward three suggestions: to strengthen middle countries income services, to decriminalise drug use (since punitive measures simply do not work) and to learn how to live with drugs even they harm, even we’d like to leave in a drug-free world. Finally, he remarked that drug policies should be grounded on scientific evidence and human rights and health-oriented policies.

Advancing drug policy reform

Amb. Sabrina Dallafior noted that all the entities of the UN should collaborate when dealing with the issue of drugs and in this sense Geneva is ideally placed to develop solutions on drugs. She pointed out that an intersectional cooperation is needed (Vienna-Geneva.) Subsequently, Maria Cattaui stressed that drug policies have created totally unintended consequences. We’ve mainstreamed discrimination and stigma precisely of the people that are the most vulnerable ones in our society. We’ve failed them. Thus, it’s important to change and amend laws when they stop to have the same effects as they should have. The aim should be to defend people and give them the means to take control of their own lives based on the human rights.

From a medical point of view, Michel Kazatchkine stated that the policies meant to prohibit drugs present a paradox: they are presented to protect public health and safety but they contribute to a wide range of health harms (ex. the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C.) Moreover, the increased risk of death of overdoses is highly present since drugs are not controlled over their properties. Shekhar Saxena presented the work done by the WHO as a technical agency. He also underlined the main issues that are tackled: prevention of drug use, prevention and management of harm associated with drug use, access to controlled drugs and medicines, evaluation on a scientific basis. In each of these areas there are technical instruments provided.

Craig Mokhiber adopted a human rights perspective: more lives have been lost for policies responding to policies not because of the drugs themselves. Millions are languishing in prison because of drug use and millions more have been denied their right to health. The response of drug use needs to be addressed to the human rights deficit that often lies at the root causes of issues like discrimination. Policies need to be built on two pillars: evidence and values (rule of law, peace, justice, etc.) Amb. Bente Angell-Hansen stated that the UPR should be mentioned within the Human Rights Council sessions. The Ambassador also mentioned the importance of the issues of motherhood and transmission of HIV diseases. Finally, Gilberto Gerra reported that 60% of the countries involve the army and the ministry of defense to manage people that use drugs. For a long time it was a simply moral and criminal issue: now it needs to be seen as a social and cultural one. However, in many countries these alternative measures and policies are not implemented because of lack of resources.

MR – Research Assistant at CIPADH