Side Event: Celebrating the five-year anniversary of the UNGASS: Progress made, ongoing challenges

Organized by International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) with the support of Portugal, and the European Union, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization 

Recording in English

Recording in Spanish

Oliver Onidi (European Commission). Very happy to chair this event on UNGASS, which is ‘the mother of us all’. The Commisson is already very pleased by the evolution of this CND. It is difficult to translate the proceedings into virtual format. But we have seen that the online format has allowed us to reach out to a number of extra participant who normally don’t have the capacity to join us in Vienna. The second thing is that we already have quite good results. The COVID19 statement has been adopted, and it is very strong. We already have a resolution on alternative development, and many other things will follow.

This special event is about UNGASS. We still believe that this document is a reference that is truly applicable to the current situation. The European Union supports “immensely” the UN system Common Position, as it is a very useful tool to ensure the implementation of the UNGASS. We aim to have a formal point in the agenda on the Common Position, as well as a reaffirmation of its importance, in CND 2022. The value of civil society is also critical to us. The virtual format hasn’t been necessarily as helpful for the visibility of civil society.

Marie Nougier (IDPC). I would like to start by thanking all of the co-sponsors who are supporting this side event today.

As Mr. Onidi said, I work for the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). For those who don’t know IDPC, we are a global network of over 190 NGOs that come together to promote drug policies that advance social justice and human rights.

At the occasion of the 5-year anniversary of the 2016 UNGASS, IDPC published a report that looks back at the implementation of some of the most progressive aspects of the Outcome Document.

The report focuses on six critical areas: public health, development, human rights, civil society engagement, UN agency collaboration, and drug policy evaluation.

Our analysis uses wide-ranging data and research from the UN, academia, civil society and the community. But we also wanted to show the human face of the impacts of drug policies – good and bad. So throughout the report, we highlight quotes from communities on the ground, in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar, Norway, Peru, South Africa, Thailand and others.

Our research shows that, in the past five years, progress has undeniably been made on several aspects of global drug policy.

  • A major win since the UNGASS is the fact that UN debates on drugs are no longer separated from debates related to human rights, health, gender and development. The adoption of the UN System Common Position on drugs has been a significant milestone in promoting more coherence in the UN family on drug policy issues. And the same goes for the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy, which are the first of their kind.
  • At national level, more jurisdictions have decriminalised drug use, including in Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Ghana, South Africa and various US states.
  • More states have also adopted medicinal cannabis schemes, including Bolivia, Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea and Thailand. And of course, the CND voted to recognise the medicinal value of cannabis at international level last December.
  • Harm reduction services have expended in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, available data and testimonies from the ground show that meaningful change for communities affected by punitive drug control has yet to materialise.

  • Five billion people in need are denied access to essential medications for the treatment of pain and palliative care.
  • People who use drugs continue to be criminalised in 85% of countries around the world, and at least 550,000 people are currently in prison for drug use. The ongoing criminalisation of people who use drugs fuels stigma and discrimination, and creates a major structural barrier to access to harm reduction and treatment services.
  • Access to these services remains unjustifiably restricted with only very limited progress in availability and access since 2016. And some countries which had harm reduction services available in 2016 have closed them down (e.g. in countries like Brazil, Bulgaria or the Philippines).
  • As a result of all this, 585,000 preventable drug use related deaths were recorded in 2017, this represents a life lost every 54 seconds.
  • More generally, people continue to be incarcerated in overcrowded prisons for disproportionate amounts of time for non-violent drug offences. It’s estimated by UNODC that 2.5 million people in prisons worldwide are sentenced for drug offences, representing one in five people deprived of liberty.
  • Women are disproportionately affected: those incarcerated for drug offences globally represent 35% of the total female prison population.
  • Hundreds of thousands more people are detained against their will in compulsory drug detention centres and in private ‘rehabilitation’ clinics, where they suffer humiliations, ill-treatment and forced labour.
  • 3000 people are currently on death row for drug offences, while people suspected of drug offences continue to be victims of racial profiling, gender-based violence and extrajudicial killings. In the USA for example, although black people represent only 13% of the US population and levels of drug use are similar between black and white communities, black people comprise 40% of those incarcerated for drug offences in state and federal prisons.
  • Farmers cultivating illegal plants like coca or cannabis continue to face forced eradication campaigns, health harms caused by the use of chemicals, violence at the hands of law enforcement and military forces.
  • In parallel, civil society space has become increasingly restricted at both national and international levels, while the meaningful involvement of people most affected remains hampered by criminalisation and stigmatisation.

So on balance, the positive reforms observed in some countries and jurisdictions has not been able to counterbalance the lack of progress made in others – nor the concerning moves towards even more repressive approaches in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, the Philippines, Russia and others since 2016.

In many respects, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this already dire situation – but it has also been an opportunity for civil society to clearly highlight the need for urgent reforms.

So I would like to conclude with 8 recommendations – which are more detailed in the final section of our report.

  1. Ensure the meaningful participation of civil society, in particular affected communities, in local, national, regional and international drug policy making, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
  2. Ensure the wide dissemination and operationalisation of the UN System Common Position and a stronger, adequately funded, role for its implementation Task Team.
  3. Improve access to, and sustainable funding for, harm reduction, voluntary drug dependence treatment and controlled medicines.
  4. Adopt development-oriented drug policies that truly address the poverty, marginalisation, lack of access to land and basic services, in both rural and urban areas, including for women, ethnic and racial minorities and indigenous groups.
  5. Review drug laws and policies to remove all punishments for drug use and possession for personal use, ensure proportionate penalties and sentencing practices, use meaningful alternatives to incarceration and punishment and ensure access to legal aid – with the goal of using prison only as a means of last resort.
  6. Abolish the death penalty in all circumstances.
  7. Ensure timely access to justice and reparations for survivors of human rights violations committed in the name of drug control.
  8. Reduce the prominence of indicatorsfocusing on the overall scale of the illegal drug market, and focus instead on more meaningful indicators to measure progress towards protecting health, improving human rights, welfare, gender equality, and reducing levels of violence.

Craig Mokhiber (OHCHR). ‘The war on drugs has been an unmitigated disaster for human rights. People killed in the streets, millions languishing in prisons, grossly disproportionate sentencing, lives and livelihoods of many sacrificed in name of drug enforcement. And all the while, with millions spent on ineffective drug enforcement. This is really institutionalised madness, with benefits mostly received by criminal groups.

Considering all of this, the UNGASS Outcome Document was considered disappointing. There are surely some good things about alternatives to incarceration, etc. But it fell short from declaring the need to decriminalise drug use, and to transfer drug management to the domain on health. We would have liked to see a clear reference to the right to health. The Outcome Document also failed to include any operational recommendation on the death penalty. (Though we have seen important progress on that front, with only 30 executions for drug offences in the last year, and an increasing number of countries signing on the UNGA resolution on the moratorium to the death penalty). At the same time, restricted access to medicines is a very important impediment to the enjoyment of the right to health .Finally, globally people of African descent are disproportionately likely to be apprehended, detained, and charged for drug offences, across the world.

There are change in the air. At the UN level, in 2018 31 UN agencies adopted the UN system Common Position. And in 2020, the executive community of the Secretary General decided to implement it across all UN strategies. In the Philippines, we are implementing a joint UN programme on human rights capacity-building, with a strong focus on drug policies. And in the last two years we have developed the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policies, which have already been used by courts, UN experts, treaty bodies, and policymakers.

These are all good steps, but there is so much more to do. There is a better way. We need to relegate the failed ‘war on drugs’ approaches and replace them with evidence-base approaches. One step for this is decriminalisation.

Vinay Sadanha (UNAIDS). ‘40 years into the AIDS epidemic, every country has adopted the commitment to end AIDS by 2030. This requires a much more ambitious and holistic approach than the one we have had so far. So after several months of hard work and analysis of data we are very proud to say that the new Global AIDS Strategy was adopted by the board in February 2021. It is notable that this is not a UNAIDS strategy, it’s a Global AIDS Strategy that seeks to engage all stakeholders and countries, including those that might not agree with some of the policies here promoted, as we need to continue working with them if we want to end AIDS.

The Strategy explicitly calls for ending the inequalities that are an obstacle to ending AIDS. There are three strategic priorities; but his is not a menu where you can choose what priority you prefer. All components are equally important, and all of them need to be implemented at the same time, using an inequality lens.

I would like to highlight some key targets that we have adopted: 95% people affected by the pandemic should, not only have access to, but actually use effective quality community-led and community-based interventions, including harm reduction services. But we’re very far away from these targets. The strategy also features the revised 95-95-95 testing and treatment targets, which need to be achieved amongst all populations, amongst all age groups, in all demographics. This means that we need valid, updated data on all key populations.

Strategy priority two of the new Global AIDS strategy includes that 80% of services for HIV prevention programmes for key populations and women should be delivered by community, key populations, and women-led organisations. Another important targets is that less than 10% of countries should have punitive legal and policy environments that lead to the denial and limitation of access to services, by 2025. A goal to increase investment in harm reduction to 29bn is also included.

Since the adoption of the Common Position, rest assured that for no agency it has been a static document. The lead in this is not UNAIDS, but UNODC. But we are proud of the very strong leadership of UNODC on taking forward the UN system Common Position across the UN, and with external stakeholders.

The negotiations for the new HIV Level Meeting Political Declaration will start in May 2021. The lead facilitators will be Zambia and Australia. We urge everyone to engage countries, especially those who are most reluctant, so that people who use drugs and an evidence-based approach to drug use are strongly included’.

Yennifer Martinez Murillo (Asociación de Campesinos Agroecológicos Ambientalistas de Mesetas Meta). ´What has changed during the last 5 years, in which we have had a peace process in Colombia? At the beginning, all women organisations had a very positive approach to the process. We thought we would be able to stop cultivating coca and switch to other crops. But 5 years later, the reality is that the agreements have not been complied with. The situation of people growing crops has changed for the worse. We don’t have access to the crops that we abandoned voluntarily, and we have no support to cultivate other plants. Our income and economy has worsened. At a personal level, I have had to work much harder.

We have also organised ourselves as a women group in a much more active way, organising assemblies, and assuming as much leadership as possible. We have learned that, in order to have what we are entitled to, and to resist, we need to be united.

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