The governments of the world are preparing for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs, in April this year - the first of its kind since 1998. Unfortunately, as I wrote in my previous essay on UNGASS, our politicians are far from accepting the reality that drugs are here to stay, and that it's time to change the punitive paradigm to a harm reduction paradigm. There is no hope that the international drug conventions - the cornerstone of global drug control - will be amended. The most we can expect is an outcome document which takes a stand against human rights abuses, speaks up for harm reduction, and is adopted with the meaningful involvement of civil society.
After several months of negotiation, the UNGASS board has come out with the first draft of the outcome document to be discussed and adopted in April by the member states. This document is a bitter disappointment for all of us who, in previous years, have invested our time and energy in advocacy around UN drug policies. Not because of what is included, but because of what is missing from the document - namely, any mention of harm reduction as such, or any specific harm reduction interventions, including needle and syringe programs, opiate substitution treatment or overdose prevention programs. As Harm Reduction International points out in its statement, this is not only a failure to move forward in the fight for a greater acceptance of harm reduction, but a significant step backwards from previously agreed language.
A few months ago, governments adopted the so-called Sustainable Development Goals, in which they made a strong commitment to end AIDS by 2030 and to combat hepatitis C. That goal is simply not achievable without scaling up harm reduction services among injecting drug users. New HIV and hepatitis C infections may be decreasing in the general population, but they are rapidly increasing among injecting drug users. The fact that there is no reference to the Sustainable Development Goals or harm reduction in the draft, again shows the lack of consistency within the United Nations. When it comes to drug policies, the same governments who have committed themselves to reducing AIDS and hepatitis are refusing to mention effective HIV and hepatitis prevention interventions.
Now it is up to us, civil society, to speak up. We simply cannot let another UNGASS pass, without a strong commitment to support harm reduction. If governments are reluctant to speak the truth, we need to remind them, in all possible forums. Harm reduction is a matter of life and death for people who use drugs: To reject harm reduction, is to reject life. Tell your government that you are angry at the lack of language on harm reduction, and urge them to prioritise this issue in UNGASS discussions!
Photo: Poster exhibition organized by the Harm Reduction Coalition at the CND in 2014