Date: 21 February 2013
The meaning, methods of implementation and consequences of strict drug control on public health came under scrutiny at the third event of the ICHRDP-Essex Debate Series, hosted this time by the University of Pretoria.
‘Strict control as practiced by many governments destroys the right to health,’ said panellist Stephen Lewis, Co-director of AIDS-Free World, and added ‘It is necessary to abandon the euphemisms: strict drug control means war on drugs’.
Mr. Mandiaye Niang, Regional Representative for the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, argued instead that law-enforcement, and abuses they commit, should not be conflated with overall legal framework. His rebuttal to Mr. Lewis was based on the inability to prove a causal link between violations to human rights in the pursuit of enforcing punishment for drug offences.
He added that the international drug control system, unlike common perception, is not only guided by prohibitionism because the international drug control treaties offer alternatives to punitive responses for minor drug offences, such as rehabilitation and education.
'If drug use outside of medical supervision is a health hazard, it must be subjected to strict control for the sake of protection of the health of people, in particular the most vulnerable. This is what we do for antibiotics and many other medications that require a prescription, and nobody questions that.'
But Mr. Lewis, also a member of the Global Commission on HIV and Law, argued drug control is directly related to violations to the universal right to health across regions. Countries that are not implementing harm reduction measures for injecting drug user populations are engaging in dangerous risks that could be considered criminal.
He denounced the silence of the Yuri Fedotov, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, to the escalating HIV/AIDS epidemic in Russia, fuelled by criminalization of drug users and lack of prevention policies addressing high-risk groups.
‘Where is his voice [Fedotov’s], why has he not publicly said that the head of Russia, Putin, is behaving in a fashion which is not only delinquent, but indefensible and possible criminal because so many people dying unnecessarily as a result of the refusal to introduce harm reduction policies?’
Mr. Niang did not deny human rights violations occur in the context of law-enforcement and they should be rejected categorically, including when done at an institutional level. There is no difference when pursing punishment of different offences in the context of criminal law, for example, when someone is charged for a drug offence or a sexual offence. Law-enforcement is required to act through certain rules and if violated, they should be reprimanded.
Another salient topic in the debate was the role and responsibility for condoning and implementing the ‘strict drug control’. Mr. Lewis said that UNODC is being complicit to violations done in implementing drug control, while Mr. Niang defended a cautious diplomacy.
The United Nations is a global governmental organization governed by the logic of multilateralism. There are theories as to how and what ‘working’ in concert has meant throughout history of international relations. However, overall aim is said to be ‘cooperation’ among nations. There has been much debate about whether non-compliant countries should be ‘shamed’ or to maintain working relations with them to support and facilitate change.
However, Mr. Lewis said, from his experience as former Ambassador of Canada and working in the UN, that ‘If you live a life of self-censorship you will never survive in this world, and one of the mistakes of the UN makes… is self-censorship. The inability to see that you can press things forward and take strong stance is possible.'
What is the responsibility of a bureaucracy in implementing, condoning, or simply not decrying policies deemed to be hampering right to health? What legal framework would be the most suitable for addressing this problem (international criminal law, criminal law, tort law, public law)?
What are the problems (evidence, legal tests, etc.) in trying to establish causality between policies and effects on the ground?
Would you side with Mr. Lewis' recommendation to overhaul the drug control treaties that would focus on health and well-being or rather with Mr. Niang's argument that there is enough room in the treaties to implement different strategies to counter the drug problem?
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