Side Event: VNGOC Ad Hoc Working Group – NGOs from Asia Unite to Create a Consensus and a Call for Attention to the Challenges in Asia-Pacific Regarding Drug Matters

Organized by the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs with the support of the Associacao de Rehabilitacao Toxicodependentes de Macau, and the UNODC Civil Society Unit

Penny Hill (Deputy Secretary, Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs):

Today’s side event has been coordinated by the VNGOC’s ‘Ad Hoc Working Group’ for the Asia-Pacific region. We are working to build a consensus between NGOs in the region, and today you will hear some of the perspectives of different members from Asia.

Sana Ullah Rathore (Pakistan Youth Organisation):

I will give an overview of the VNGOC Ad Hoc Working Group. In 2019, it was found that the VNGOC membership was under-represented in the Asia region and so a call was opened for a working group to form, to discuss barriers and ways forward. The Group meets regularly online, and has also begun consultations for an Asian ‘civil society common position’ (like the one that was developed for Africa in 2020). The Working Group’s goals are to expand VNGOC membership in the region, to engage key NGOs across the Asia-Pacific zone, and to improve effective communication platforms for the region.

Augusto Nogueria (Associacao Reabilitacao de Toxicodependentes de Macau, ARTM):

The Ad Hoc Working Group held a meeting on 23rd February 2021, and around 70 NGOs participated and gave their inputs. Many suggestions have also been received for the common position, either during that event or via an online survey (link below). There were many areas raised as key areas for the region – including the need to create a regional data centre like the Monitoring Centre in Europe (EMCDDA), the need to focus on access to essential medicines for pain relief, to call for an end to the death penalty, and to expand services such as harm reduction. When asked about the best processes, suggestions included the creation of smaller working groups for each key issue to develop and present papers for discussion, as well as a series of regional workshops, etc. Overall, the feedback from the February meeting was positive, while people also called for more opportunities to work collectively and interactively. Based on this feedback, an initial draft has been prepared and will be shared with NGOs before the end of the month. But we continue to welcome additional suggestions and inputs as to how we can best promote health, human rights and evidence-based approaches in the region, review the drug laws in the region, and present the good examples that exist. We hope that the common position can help galvanise and guide partners in the region, and highlight the importance of our partnerships with governments too.

Cheung Lik Hang (Associacao Reabilitacao de Toxicodependentes de Macau, ARTM):

I will overview harm reduction services in Macau. After finding 60% HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs, the government launched plans and programmes to respond. In 2009, policies were put in place to secure the needle and syringe programme and, later, the methadone programme.  This was a partnership between sectors: civil society, police, government, social welfare, education, etc. This was crucial so that people were able to reach the harm reduction interventions whenever necessary. We also provide relapse prevention, treatment, follow-up, and out-patient support for people receiving methadone, psychosocial counselling, etc. We provide outreach, education, case management, medical interventions, and community engagement within the neighborhood to reduce stigmatisation. These measures have allowed us to reach a zero prevalence rate of new HIV infections amongst people who inject drugs over the past years. When we looked at data from across the region, we can see similar positive impacts on HIV incidence. But the data are not always reliable or available, which shows a need for greater data collection in the region. We are also able to boast excellent rates of needle and syringe returns / recycling, which benefits the community as well – we have been actively promoting returns of used equipment. Another focus has been on the family environment, to provide people with the support they need. Twelve principles for our work are:

  • ‘No Wrong Door’
  • Delivery of services in the community
  • Minimal disruption of social links
  • Integration into existing services
  • Involve and build on community resources
  • Participation of people who use drugs, families and community
  • Taking into account different needs
  • Close collaboration between sectors
  • Evidence-based interventions
  • Informed and voluntary participation
  • Respect for human rights and dignity
  • Accepting relapse as part of the (recovery) process

In conclusion, we need to support the people, and not always rely on punishment.

Ramli Samad (Association of PENGASIH, Malaysia):

A quick overview of drug use in Malaysia – we have approximately 300,000 people who use drugs, with amphetamine-type substances the most common. Most interventions are provided by the government, under the frame of a national punitive drug law. NGOs are active in providing smaller treatment services, but also increasingly to advocate for amending the national law so that people who use drugs are not treated as criminals. This would help to break the vicious cycle that people face in terms of criminalisation, disconnection, employment, family, addiction, etc. PENGASIH formed in 1991 and delivers peer-driven services such as therapeutic community treatment and rehabilitation – with documented success rates of more than 65%. Our clients also come from across Asia and the Middle East. We have a functional Board of external trustees from the community, and we partner with local universities and social enterprises to sustain our work. We are completing a new treatment and rehabilitation complex on the fringe of the mountains which will be able to accommodate 250 people. Our way forward is to focus even more on evidence-based outcomes, to continue advocacy for better drug policies, to collaborate on better research and development, and to improve engagement with families and other stakeholders. We also look forward to delivering training and internships – plans for trainings in Myanmar have been put on hold due to COVID-19.

Shahida Zaheer (Mian Afzal Trust Hospital, MATH, Pakistan):

MATH is a non-profit organisation working in Gujranwala, Pakistan since 2001. It is the biggest treatment facility in the Punjab Province, with capacity of 145 beds, and one of the biggest treatment facilities in Pakistan. Our objectives are to strengthen prevention, treatment and rehabilitation services, with the ultimate purpose of providing personalised care to patients and to reintegrate them into their family and society. We strive to make our clients productive, independent and self-sustaining individuals. We also work on capacity building for professionals and advocacy for drug demand reduction policies. Our programme comprises life skill training, healthy activity promotion, awareness seminars, counselling, mobile units, advocacy work, and education / skills building programmes. We offer a wide range of different group activities and interventions. A number of different international, regional and national dignitaries have been to visit our programme, and we have implemented projects with UNODC and the Pakistan, US, Japanese and Australian governments.

Ma Inez Feria (NoBox Philippines):

The Philippines is a success story – in the making! People who use drugs have realised they have to protect and act for themselves, so we have been doing a lot of work around education and awareness to empower communities and advocate for better services. People who use drugs have been able to learn to support one-another, but also to better understand the effects of drugs (as all that was provided before was ‘drugs are bad’ information). We also empower people to speak about their lives and about drugs, to open up options for people. We now have local government providers doing “harm reduction inspired” interventions, shifting from their previous punitive narratives after being made aware of the real issues. In one example, this shift happened within just two days. People are “stuck” in a false choice between abstinence and support, and people are trying to navigate the current situation within the country – people know they need to provide support, but also how they need to report back to the Government. We have to create an environment that enables these things to happen. Yet in the Philippines, we actually have a new Bill that allows arrest for suspected drug activities (a ‘guilty until proven otherwise’ approach which is wrong, but which people think is OK) and reinstating the death penalty. But civil society came together to make joint submissions about this, collaborating for the first time. This mobilisation will continue. In order to talk about human rights, we first need to see people who use drugs as ‘human’. We need to challenge the ‘drug free world’ narrative which is the current framework, and a clear stand has to be made that the goals are health, safety and wellbeing. We need clearer conversations around decriminalisation, alongside public health responses.

Liliviwa Waqa (APLI, Fiji):

A palliative care advocacy network has been created to provide links and promote access to essential medicines – for severe pain and diseases. For the whole of last month, for example, there were no opioids available for cancer patients in the country. We face complexities with the dispensing of medicines due to the geography (Fiji comprises more than 300 islands), so we are working to train healthcare personnel to administer opioid medicines safely. Many doctors are reluctant to provide these medicines.

Sana Ullah Rathore (Pakistan Youth Organisation):

The next steps for the Ad Hoc Working Group are to incorporate the perspectives from a wide range of NGOs across Asia-Pacific into the draft common position – which ultimately aims to help shape and guide civil society and governmental responses over the coming years. After the February consultation and this side event today, we will conduct further consultations from July to October 2021 – and we are hoping to do at least one of these in-person if we can. The aim is to have a final common position paper which can be presented at the 65th CND session in March 2022.

Inputs and suggestions are welcome for the Asia Civil Society Common Position:

https://forms.office.com/Pages/ResponsePage.aspx?id=2sx5xS3_E0-UoDNNgwy38XI4LzQy_X1Dsiy_Uz1NT_dUMUJIQzdKSkVPOE9CQU1LUUNKSk5QTDRVWS4u 

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