Community voices heard loud and clear at the United Nations

Last week, the Programme Coordinating Board (PCB) of UNAIDS – which comprises governments, other UN agencies, people living with HIV/AIDS, and civil society representatives – held their 35th meeting in Geneva. Aside from the usual agenda items, this meeting also featured a one-day Thematic Segment dedicated to the issue of ‘Halving HIV transmission among people who inject drugs’ (the first time this issue had been given such a profile by the PCB).

Despite starting late, the thematic day was a great success. The opening speech from UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe set the tone, emphasising the message that no population can be left behind in the efforts to end AIDS. Notably, however, he was unable to stay for the rest of the day. High profile speakers included Ruth Dreifuss and Michel Kazatchkine from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, senior staff from UNODC, UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank, and speakers from Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia and Tanzania – among others.

But it was the drug user activists who stole the show, bringing their personal stories and perspectives to an, at-times very emotional, discussion. Despite being under pressure to compact the agenda, UNAIDS ensured that all of the invited people who use drugs got to speak – in keeping with the PCB’s overall commitment to the participation of civil society and affected populations. Efi Kokkini, Chair of the Greek Drug and Substitute Users Union, went first – telling policy makers that ‘for you, these are just stories – but for us, these are our lives’. She eloquently described why current drug policies are not working, why community members and civil society are so important to the HIV response, and why harm reduction and human rights are the key ways forward – and received a minute-long ovation from those present. Greece has recently seen a spike in new HIV infections, particularly among people who use drugs, yet the countries first safer injecting facility was closed on 2014 – after just one year of operation.

Robert Suarez from the New York City Needle and Syringe Programme also gave a powerful speech on his own experiences in the USA, which led to the US Ambassador commenting that ‘harm reduction is a strong way forward’! Also on the agenda were Happy Assan from the Tanzanian Network of People who Use Drugs (TANPUD), and Eliot Albers, the Executive Director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD). Eliot told the participants that the UNGASS on drugs in 2016 was ‘a real opportunity to begin the much needed process of dismantling the global legal architecture of punitive drug prohibition that wreaks so much havoc with the lives of my community’, and that ‘The reality for people who use, and in particular, who inject drugs, is defined by the fact that we are subject to blanket criminalisation of our behaviour which drives, and often justifies, rampant social stigma and discrimination’. Eliot also directly responded to Russia’s laughable claims earlier in the day that they support evidence-based opioid substitution therapy (referring to their use of antagonist medicines such as naltrexone, rather than methadone and buprenorphine as recommended by the WHO) – stating very clearly that such claims were ‘bullshit’! He concluded by saying that ‘We have a chance, a real chance to reverse the historical catastrophe that global prohibition has been… Join us in calling for a drug war peace in 2016.’ (Eliot’s full speech is available here).

As part of a coordinated effort, there were also interventions from the floor from Harm Reduction International (HRI) – who called for funding to be diverted from drug law enforcement into public health and harm reduction, and for the reinstatement of an independent UN Reference Group to oversee data on drugs and HIV – and from IDPC, whose speech was as follows:

The International Drug Policy Consortium is a network of 130 NGOs from around the world that comes together to promote debates on drug policies. Copies of our report about the UNGASS are available just outside this room.

To echo other speakers, the UNGASS on drugs in 2016 is an important opportunity to refocus the global drug control system towards public health and human rights and harm reduction approaches.

It is crucial that UNAIDS participates fully in the UNGASS preparations. It is especially crucial that UNAIDS reiterates the recommendations from the 2014 Gap Report – that is the recommendations to ‘Transform punitive laws’ and to ‘End the criminalisation of people who use drugs’. There have been many inspiring interventions here today, and we need these perspectives and statements to be heard in Vienna and New York too.

We recommend that UNAIDS places the UNGASS on Drugs as a standing agenda item at the 36th, 37th and 38th PCB meetings to ensure that the decisions and positions of the PCB are being reflected in the UNGASS preparations that are happening now. Unfortunately, a rushed hour at the end of a busy week is not enough to tackle this issue in the way that we need UNAIDS and PCB to.

The Thematic Segment was then closed with another excellent speech from Ruth Dreifuss – who expressed her disappointment that ‘we have not done what we set out to do’ (referring to the UN target of reducing HIV transmission among people who use drugs by 50 percent by 2015), called for actions rather than more goals and declarations on the issue, and ended with a strong message that ‘drugs may kill, but bad drug policies have killed many more.’

In the margins of the meeting, both INPUD and HRI held side events to showcase examples of peer-led harm reduction services, and to launch the Global State of Harm Reduction 2014 report, respectively. The meeting was also followed the next day by a meeting of the UN Strategic Advisory Group on HIV and Drug Use – of which IDPC is a member alongside HRI, INPUD, and the International Network of Women who Use Drugs (INWUD), as well as leading academics, key donors (the Netherlands, Norway, USAID and the Global Fund), programme implementers (the Open Society Foundations and the International AIDS Alliance), and UN agencies (UNAIDS, WHO, UNODC and the World Bank).

The author of this blog, Jamie Bridge, IDPC Senior Policy and Operations Manager