UNAIDS PCB and Commission on Narcotic Drugs
Mat Southwell, NGO Delegate for Europe & Project Manager INPUD
The International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) is a global organization defending the rights and promoting the health of people who use drugs on the world stage.
In June 2010 I attended my first Program Coordinating Board (PCB) as an observer as part of INPUD’s engagement with a specific agenda item on HIV and injecting drug use. We were successfully able to work with NGO partners to secure a commitment from PCB to involve people who use drugs and our associations. This was set alongside a number of clear commitments to harm reduction strategies and principles.
This was a very informative and reassuring experience, which was a marked contrast to my first UN meeting; the highly polarized High Level Meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). At the CND meeting in March 2009, people who use drugs were made to feel extremely unwelcome and Executive Director Costa went out of his way to question the value of our participation.
We also watched bemused at the polarized nature of the debate around drugs policy. The debate is so distanced from reality that there is a deliberate attempt to misrepresent harm reduction as a proxy for legalization. In the surreal world of CND, countries with established harm reduction programs on the ground, speak and vote against these live saving programs during CND.
So I was unsurprisingly pleased when first attending the PCB to hear UNAIDS’ Executive Director, Michel Sididé making clear and unequivocal statements in support of harm reduction and calling for end to the criminalization of people who use drugs. Institutionally, UNAIDS is very different too with the NGO community sitting on UNAIDS’ board giving a clear avenue for the expression of NGO voices and concerns.
However, the challenge with UN systems is to ensure that well intentioned words translate into effective programs on the ground at country level. UNAIDS is particularly complex, as its programs are delivered through its co-sponsors. In the case of HIV and injecting drug use, the lead co-sponsor is the UN Office of Drugs & Crime (UNODC) whose governing body is the harm reduction denying CND. Not a very promising start one might think. However, in reality UNODC also delivers harm reduction programs on the ground while its governing body continued to deny their value.
For the two years, INPUD has been invited by the UK to be an NGO member of their delegation. At the last meeting in March 2010, I was asked to bring a particular focus to the issue of policy alignment between CND and the PCB. I was able to contribute to the lobbying and promotion of an EU resolution the called for the acceptance of harm reduction interventions as science-based HIV prevention strategies. Agreement could not be found on the use of the words harm reduction, given the fear that this acceptance might open the door to more innovate and less widely accepted harm reduction approaches such as heroin prescribing and supervised consumption rooms. However, significantly CND did support a commitment to the meaningful participation of people who use drugs in policy discussions.
Once again, these are only words but it has been matched by a much more meaningful engagement of people who use drugs in the UN family including partnership working with UNODC. These debates and partnerships will hopefully support the convergence at policy level between CND and PCB moving us away from the current double talk and confusion. In particular, this will require greater dialogue between the criminal justice and public health worlds both in the UN and in support of country missions.
The UK’s experience at CND shows that including NGO representatives in country delegations provides access to technical expertise, alternative viewpoints and new lobbying avenues. The inclusion of civil society voices helps to inform and support country positions within the complex and ever changing world of drugs policy and practice. Country delegations have a important enabling role to play for civil society given the absence of formal mechanisms for engaging NGO representatives at CND. INPUD looks forward to working with the Vienna NGO Coordinating Committee, the International Drug Policy Consortium, and UNAIDS to progress NGO involvement in CND learning lessons from the increasingly effective engagement with NGOs at PCB.