Nine national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from across Asia last Saturday signed onto a consensus statement aimed at promoting health-based measures to address drug use and fight the social stigma attached to drug users. The sign-on came after two days of meetings among Asian Red Cross and Red Crescent groups in Manila.
The groups signed onto the Rome Consensus on Humanitarian Drug Policies, the result of a collaboration between the Senlis Council and the Italian Red Cross to push for more progressive drug policies. In a December 2005 meeting in Rome, numerous European, Latin American, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern Red Cross/Red Crescent signed onto the statement. Some 58 national Red Cross/Red Crescent organizations have now signed the Rome Consensus.
The Rome Consensus on Humanitarian Drug Policies contains the following planks:
- To raise the profile of drug policy to the forefront of social concerns, recognizing that negative effects of drugs are felt at all levels of society.
- To advocate a comprehensive public health, harm reduction and humanitarian approach as key elements of drug policy in the full knowledge that this approach provides the optimal way of achieving the goals of alleviating suffering, reaching vulnerable people and addressing the global HIV/AIDS crisis.
- To acknowledge that the absence of a public health, harm reduction and humanitarian approach breeds stigmatization and marginalization of drug users, thus making reintegration harder.
- To stress on the Red Cross/Red Crescent unique auxiliary role to governments and to make a commitment ranging from the volunteer to the leadership level.
- To develop cooperation with the goal of encouraging public health, harm reduction and humanitarian oriented drug responses and activities, involving peers including drug users and people living with HIV/AIDS.
- To implement carefully designed and transparent information, communication and life skill development programs concerning drug use and HIV/AIDS, with particular focus on vulnerable groups including prisoners and mobile populations.
- To recognize the important contribution that can be made by peer groups, drug users and people living with HIV/AIDS.
In Manila last Saturday, Red Cross/Red Crescent groups from the following countries signed onto the Rome Consensus: Bangladesh, China, Fiji, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The Red Cross can play a "strategic role" in preventing drug abuse by mobilizing its volunteers to provide services that would improve the self-worth of at-risk individuals, said Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippines National Red Cross, in remarks reported in Xinhua, the official Chinese news service. "We can also advocate with the government to harmonize the policies related to drug use problems based on humanitarian values," said Gordon, who is also a Philippine senator.
It is important to move away from punishment for drug users, said Yang Xusheng, representing the Red Cross Society of China. "Violence and force will only meet resistance," he said, while conceding that China has a long way to go on that score, especially given the discrimination and social stigma faced by drug users.
"Stigma kills," emphasized Massimo Barra, chairman of the Rome Consensus Leaders Group. "Indifference and discrimination kill more than the abuse of substances. Drug users are treated more as criminals than as sick people."
With groups like national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies coming on board for progressive, humane drug policies, international drug reform's long march through the institutions of civil society and, ultimately, government, takes another step forward.