The UN Vienna Meeting: Glass Half Empty or Glass Half Full? 3/18/05

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Last week, Drug War Chronicle reported on the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting in Vienna. But our deadline came before the meeting ended, so this week we come back to see how it all turned out.

On the face of it, prohibitionists led by the United States succeeded in pushing back the advance of harm reduction strategies in the UN's global drug policy-setting body. A Brazilian resolution calling for the availability of clean needles as an HIV/AIDS prevention strategy was defeated. Similarly, the definition of HIV/AIDS prevention -- the topic of the conference -- was narrowed to include only drug abuse prevention and treatment, not harm reduction approaches.

But these symbolic victories came only as the prohibitionists revealed their isolation. "During the half-day long debate on HIV prevention, the majority of the people who spoke made explicit mention of harm reduction or needle exchanges and made it clear they supported these strategies," said Daniel Wolfe of the Open Society Institute's International Harm Reduction Development Program. "Even Sweden associated itself with the European Union statement on the issue, which was supportive. Virtually every country except the US and Japan expressed a commitment to harm reduction and needle exchange. In marked contrast, the US emerged as one of the strongest voices against harm reduction, a term it believes is best avoided. Of course avoiding harm reduction also means avoiding preventing HIV for the large number of people who are unwilling or unable to stop taking drugs."

Marco Perduca
"A more compassionate approach was expected out of this meeting, and with the exception of the US, Japan, and Russia, who all opposed 'harm reduction' as a term and as a strategy including needle exchange and substitution therapies, and some Arab states, the rest of the member states clearly stated their policies and the ways in which they believe a global approach to the prevention, containment, and reduction of the spread of the disease should be," said Marco Perduca, representative of the Transnational Radical Party at the meeting. "There was a lot of anticipation that the US would oppose all these measures -- and the open letter from HIV groups in over 60 countries made a big media splash -- but the US delegation played its cards very carefully. They did not antagonize the Europeans in the plenary, but took their opposition to harm reduction in the closed-door committee meetings, where they made their position very clear."

While NGOs had trouble being heard and at some points were even barred from the sessions -- perhaps illegally -- their presence is destabilizing what remains of the prohibitionist consensus at the CND, said Perduca. "The more active presence of the NGOs is starting to create some problems for the formerly quiet debates at the CND, and its not just harm reduction or drug reform NGOs but groups concerned with global issues, like Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute, that are getting involved," he pointed out.

OSI's Wolfe agreed that the involvement of broader NGOs was a positive development. "I think that sent a powerful signal to the US and others that trying to make this a simple drug control issue was both ill-conceived and unsuccessful."

Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt, representing the European Coalition for a Just and Effective Drug Policy, the British charity The John Mordaunt Trust and its publication The Users' Voice, was one of the NGO delegates ejected from the sessions, and she was not pleased. "The US has acted illegally over Iraq at the UN, and now they are acting similarly at the CND," she said, placing the blame for the ejections squarely on the US delegation. "When will they stop being the world's bully?"

"The US decided to take its attack on needle exchange and human rights and other troublesome issues behind closed doors," said Daniel Wolfe of the Open Society Insitute's International Harm Reduction Project. "The NGOs were not actually present at the discussions where these promising resolutions were gutted," he told DRCNet. "But delegates who were there told us the US found needle exchange and harm reduction language 'unacceptable.' No compromise, no clean needles, no human rights in Vienna this year. No resolution that passed mentioned HIV prevention except in the context of substance abuse prevention and treatment."

"In the public discussions," said Wolfe, "the US consistently replaced HIV prevention with explicit references to HIV prevention through either abstaining from or stopping the use of illicit drugs. These little semantic nuances are important; the implication is that any HIV prevention that wasn't about stopping or preventing drug use was not appropriate for the CND. What that means is that the HIV prevention strategy that gets left out of the equation is needle exchange."

"We are deeply disappointed that in a year when the focus was on HIV and AIDS, there is not a single mention of syringe exchange in the final resolutions," said Wolfe. "That is an omission with very serious implications for the HIV epidemic in many parts of the world, particular the former Soviet Union and Asia. The idea that we could debate this topic and emerge without any resolutions supporting needle exchange when the AIDS epidemic is driven by injection drug use and international intervention could change the course of the epidemic; well, that is a terrible shortcoming," Wolfe said.

This year's meeting in Vienna may be over, but the battle will continue, said the TRP's Perduca. "In his closing remarks, UNODC head Costa said he hopes next year to bring some real people to Vienna. I suppose people and organizations like the TRP, who believe that prohibition and not drugs themselves is the bigger public problem, should try to bring real people to Vienna, too. In the past, on the land mine issue and on the issue of the International Criminal Court, we have seen that coalitions of NGOs have been the driving force for major changes; in fact, we helped found some of those coalitions."

And not just Vienna next year, said Perduca. "We need to be building such coalitions again for 2008, when the UN will meet to assess the drug action plan it launched seven years ago. From campesinos to injection drug users, from indigenous people to people living with AIDS, now is the time to unite and be heard."

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Issue #379 -- 3/18/05

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Editorial: How to Launch a Nationwide Drug Menace | Alaska Measure to Recriminalize Marijuana Headed for Hearings Next Week | The UN Vienna Meeting: Glass Half Empty or Glass Half Full? | Marijuana Regulation Efforts Moving Forward in Nevada and Vermont | Marijuana Law Enforcement Costs More than $7 Billion a Year -- and Doesn't Work, Says New Report | Coasters to Stop the Drug War | Events and Conferences Coming Up for Drug Reformers -- Come Out and Be a Part of It | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Newsbrief: US Drug War Hurts Women, Says New Report | Newsbrief: Welfare Bill Amended to Cut Funding to States That Fail to Drug Test Welfare Recipients, But None Currently Do | Newsbrief: Police in Missouri Town Seek to Overturn Marijuana Reform Ordinance | Newsbrief: Heroin Maintenance Study Now Underway in Vancouver | Newsbrief: Vancouver Sun Says Legalize It | Newsbrief: UN Predicts Cocaine Price Increase, Cites Colombia "Success" | Newsbrief: European Drug Think-Tank Calls for Legalizing Afghan Opium Crop -- Afghan Government Reaction Mixed | Newsbrief: Crackdown in Sao Paulo's "Crackland" Stirs Criticism | Media Scan: Tony Papa on Artists Against the Drug War for Alternet, Slate on the WTO and Marijuana Laws, Vancouver Sun on Marijuana Legalization, UK Overdosing on Opiates Article | This Week in History | MAPS Benefit Auction | The Reformer's Calendar


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