Rights Here. Right Now. For All.
As the world is getting ready for the XVIII International AIDS Conference to be held from July the 18th to the 23rd 2010 organised around the theme “Rights Here, Right Now”, the issue of injecting drug use finds itself under the spotlight. One of the conference’s aims is to carry on the conversation initiated in Mexico in 2008 during the last AIDS Conference on the linkages between HIV and Human Rights. The trend to apply a Human Rights-based approach (where all the programmes activities are based on human rights principles and strive to achieve one or many Human Rights) has been going on since 2004, and has steadily been working its way in almost all areas of development and public health issues. Anti-stigma and anti-discrimination against people living with HIV activists have been advocating for such an approach to HIV towards many governments that have been voting and implementing criminalizing and stigmatizing laws, thus undermining the work done by civil society organisations.
In the light of the upcoming conference, non-governmental organisations and other actors are also tackling the zero-tolerance policy on drugs and illicit drug users that has prevailed in the UN system for the last 15 years or so.
Indeed, the International AIDS Society, the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV and AIDS and the ICSDP, among others, have gotten together to write a declaration, “The Vienna Declaration”, calling on to all civil society members and concerned citizens to sign and support it. The Declaration mainly calls for the following actions to be taken:
· Undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies.
· Implement and evaluate a science-based public health approach to address the individual and community harms stemming from illicit drug use.
· Decriminalise drug users, scale up evidence-based drug dependence treatment options and abolish ineffective compulsory drug treatment centres that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.26
· Unequivocally endorse and scale up funding for the implementation of the comprehensive package of HIV interventions spelled out in the WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS Target Setting Guide.27
· Meaningfully involve members of the affected community in developing, monitoring and implementing services and policies that affect their lives.
Reports and documentation outlined in the Declaration clearly state that the so called global “War on Drugs” has done nothing but reinforce illicit drug mafias and cartels, as well as stigmatizing and marginalizing drug users, who are not treated as patients in need for care and support but rather as criminals, hence encouraging governments to implement inappropriate and harmful laws. The “War on Drugs” has therefore rendered injecting drug users more vulnerable by putting them on the same levels as outlaws. Indeed, such a label discourages illicit drug users to seek help, which puts them even more at risk to violence and HIV transmission. As Nobel Laureate Pr. Françoise Barré Sinoussi, a strong supporter of the Declaration, expresses it :
« In cases where people who use drugs are already infected with HIV, these policies impede their ability to access life-saving treatments and interventions to prevent transmission.”
The issue of injecting drug use (IDU) and its correlation to HIV transmission is all the more important in the Middle East as IDU is the first cause of HIV transmission in our region (with for example as much as 60% of HIV transmission stemming from IDU in Iran). The latest “World Drug Report” of 2010 indicates a rise in drug production and consomption in the Middle East, with an emphasis of synthetic drugs.
In the Middle East, a joint study made by the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), revealed that the age of first drug use is decreasing, while injecting drug use is increasing, with an ever increasing number of women users. The issue of gender also needs to be emphasized: indeed, the stigma on a women drug user is even stronger than the one imposed on men, rendering women, whom are already physilogically and societally more at risk to contract HIV, even more vulnerable. The context of conflict is also to take into account when speaking about IDU in the Middle East as drug use is more likely to increase in times of conflict, both within the civilian and combatant populations. Nevertheless, drug laws in the Middle East are for most of them in line with the global zero-tolerance policy that has been going on within the international community. For example, in Gaza, Hamas has aligned its drug law with the Egyptian on in Decembre 2009, making the punishment for drug users much tougher and enabling the death penalty to be pronounced for drug traffickers. While Lebanon has voted Law 673 that decriminalised drug addiction, there has not been real implementation and the lack of education and awareness raising ensure that stigma and discrimination live on, leaving IDUs vulnerable. Iran, in the “APPROVALS MADE BY THE EXPEDIENCY COUNCIL ON 22 JULY, 2006 CONCERNING REGIME’S GENERAL POLICIES FOR FIGHT AGAINST NARCOTICS” stated that it should encourage:
“Adoption of appropriate measures in order for the use of narcotics, psychotropic substances and their precursors to be considered a crime except for scientific, medical and industrial cases as well as for programmes approved for treatment and for reducing damage;”
This measure has had so far little or no effect on Iran’s huge drug problem and significant HIV prevalence within the IDU population.
It is high time governments and activists get together at the International AIDS conference and start advocating for the Vienna Declaration, while focusing their efforts and resources on harm reduction initiatives.