Closed to Reason

The International Narcotic Control Board and HIV / AIDS
Joanne Csete and Daniel Wolfe
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and International Harm Reduction Development Program (IHRD) of the Open Society Institute
February 2007

Closed to Reason

A report published in March 2007 by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the Open Society Institute Public Health Program, strongly criticises the INCB. It accuses the Board of becoming 'an obstacle to effective programs to prevent and treat HIV and chemical dependence'. “Nearly one in three HIV infections outside Africa is among people who inject drugs. The International Narcotics Control Board could and should be playing a key role in stopping this injection-driven HIV epidemic — but it’s not,” said Joanne Csete, Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and co-author of the report.

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Silencing other views

“The Board mentions HIV repeatedly in their annual reports, yet routinely fails to emphasize the solutions,” said Daniel Wolfe, Deputy Director of OSI’s International Harm Reduction Development Program and co-author of the report. “Instead, the INCB has consistently cautioned against effective HIV prevention measures and failed to highlight critical shortfalls in the global response.”

Stephen Lewis, the former UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, joined the press conference and noted that the Board has sought to silence other views, despite the evidence. In May 2006, the INCB wrote to then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanding that Lewis be censured for his public support of supervised injection facilities (SIF) for HIV prevention.

The INCB has insisted that SIF violate the UN drug conventions, even though UN lawyers have said SIF are consistent with the spirit and letter of the conventions. 

Key findings and recommendations

The role of drug policy has been transformed since the era in which the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the 13-member body responsible for monitoring compliance with the United Nations drug conventions, was conceived. In a time when an estimated 30 percent of infections outside of Africa are due to injection drug use, drug policy is fundamental to the success or failure of the international response to HIV/AIDS. A significant body of scientific evidence has shown the importance of measures such as effective treatment for chemical dependence and provision of sterile syringes in preventing HIV. The INCB, which emphasizes its impartiality, independence and reliance on evidence, has an historic opportunity to help stop the injection-driven HIV epidemics now emerging and exploding in much of the world.

Instead, the Board has become an obstacle to effective programs to prevent and treat HIV and chemical dependence. INCB annual reports are rife with omissions and misrepresentations and lack both scientific documentation and justification for legal opinions. Country visits by INCB representatives fail to highlight law enforcement patterns that accelerate HIV transmission and represent clear human rights violations. Although the Board is responsible for ensuring the global availability of legal opiates, it has not acted to help countries accurately estimate their need for the opiate substitution treatment shown to be effective in reducing HIV risk and increasing adherence to antiretroviral medications.

The Board stresses the drug control aspects of its mandate. Its annual report for 2005, however, refers 18 times to the role of drug use in accelerating HIV transmission in various countries. Tellingly, that report, like other INCB documents, fails to urge countries to pursue proven strategies to reduce HIV transmission among people who inject drugs. While the UN drug conventions clearly mandate treatment for drug users, the INCB has remained silent on the shortage of effective chemical dependence programs, and the abuses committed in the name of drug treatment and rehabilitation.

The United Nations system as a whole is committed to reducing HIV among people who inject drugs, to safeguarding the human rights of people who use drugs, and to increasing accountability and civil society involvement. In this context, the INCB is an anomaly: a closed body, accountable to no one, that focuses on drug control at the expense of public health and that urges national governments to do the same.

INCB members contradict or seek to thwart evidence-based recommendations of other UN bodies and representatives.

  • INCB members have spoken out against sterile syringe programs and opiate substitution treatment, despite findings by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the World Health Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the INCB itself that these measures are effective and important components of HIV prevention.
  • In 2002, the president of the INCB claimed, erroneously, that distribution of sterile syringes contravened the UN drug conventions. In 2005, a memorandum signed by an INCB member from Russia included numerous misstatements of fact meant to discredit the use of methadone as a treatment for opiate addiction.
  • The Board has sought to silence UN representatives who support a fuller range of HIV prevention approaches. In 2006, for example, Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, commented favorably on Canadian data showing that a Vancouver safer injection facility had reduced HIV risk. The next day, he received an angry telephone call from the INCB Secretariat and a promise that the Board would write to the Secretary-General to urge that Lewis be censured for support of “opium dens.” In that letter, the INCB president expressed disbelief that “any officer of the United Nation [sic] could have made such statements,” and demanded that Lewis recant.

INCB reports praise governments that violate human rights.

  • A Board delegation visited Thailand in 2004, several months after police forces began a “war on drugs” in which human rights experts documented extrajudicial executions, arrest quotas, use of blacklists, and the internment of tens of thousands of people, including many with no history of drug use. In its report issued after the visit, the Board did not condemn the mass arrests; instead, it expressed appreciation for the Thai government’s efforts to investigate the killings, despite findings by human rights groups that the government had failed to allow any independent investigations.
  • In 2004, after Bulgaria mandated imprisonment for possession of any amount of any illicit drug, fear of arrest caused rates of drug injection and syringe sharing to increase sharply. INCB representatives visited Bulgaria in 2005, but the Board’s report made no mention of the harsh drug law or its impact, noting instead that national drug control legislation was “well-developed.”
  • In Russia, authorities in 2005 moved to reverse a reform that had reduced the numbers imprisoned for very small amounts of drugs. Wholesale and prolonged incarceration had been recognized as contributing to both penitentiary overcrowding and the fact that Russia’s HIV epidemic was among the fastest growing in the world. INCB representatives visited Russia during this debate, but the Board’s subsequent report made no mention of any discussion of the issue or of concern about the human rights implications of the policy. Instead, the INCB expressed concern about the extent of drug abuse in Russia, and encouraged coordination and cooperation between HIV and drug treatment services.
  • Since 1990, China has marked the UN’s International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking with show trials in which drug dealers are sentenced to death, sometimes as crowds chant “kill, kill.” Scores have been executed. Despite professed support for sensitive policing, the INCB has failed to criticize either this practice or the police harassment of those seeking to obtain sterile injection equipment, whether in China or in other countries visited by the Board.

The Board stresses drug control at the expense of public health, expressing concern about diversion rather than praise for scientifically proven measures that reduce HIV and other harms.

  • While acknowledging that WHO added methadone and buprenorphine to its Model List of Essential Medicines in 2005, the Board has made no public effort to promote opiate substitution treatment (OST) in countries where large numbers of people inject drugs. It also has failed to highlight OST as an essential tool in HIV care or treatment. Although Ukraine, China, Malaysia and Iran have moved in recent years to expand OST programs and/or needle exchange programs to contain HIV, INCB reports have not expressed appreciation for or satisfaction with these developments. Instead, the Board has expressed concern about diversion of methadone and buprenorphine, and urged WHO to advocate for tightened controls on these medications.

The Board issues interpretations of law and pronouncements on harm reduction, despite a lack of expertise in international law and HIV policy.

  • According to their published biographies, none of the Board’s 13 members has formal training in international law, despite the importance of such credentials in interpreting treaty provisions. In the case of substitution treatment, needle exchange, and safer injection facilities, the pronouncements of INCB members have contravened the fi ndings of the Board’s own legal advisors and national experts.
  • Despite the centrality of drug use to HIV transmission, none of the Board members has published in peer-reviewed journals on HIV/AIDS, and few list any experience of HIV treatment or prevention in their biographies.

The Board conducts operations in secret, and without mechanisms for accountability.

  • INCB meetings are closed to observers, and no minutes are available.
  • INCB members have used their Board affiliation when making misstatements of fact, yet no public mechanism exists for member states or community organizations to contest claims, seek clarification, or offer amendments.
  • Sources are selectively and inconsistently documented in INCB reports.
  • The INCB does not publicize country visits in advance or convene public hearings or other opportunities for input.
  • Despite the UN Secretary-General’s call for greater transparency and interaction with civil society at the UN, the INCB’s website includes no information on the Board’s budget or staff.
  • The INCB Secretariat — paid for by the UN — is unresponsive to requests for information from affected communities or non-governmental organizations.


  • To improve accountability, address the HIV epidemic, and meet its mandate to assess compliance with the UN drug conventions, the INCB must change.

  • The INCB should regularly assess the supply and adequacy of treatment for chemical
    dependence. It should provide technical assistance to help countries accurately estimate the need for opiate substitution treatment, support governments that are striving to scale up such treatment, and encourage governments that have yet to provide these life-saving therapies to find safe and effective ways to do so.

  • The INCB should cite scientific evidence for its observations about drug use and health, and legal grounds for its interpretation of law. It should provide sources of information for its annual reports, and opportunities for UN member states and civil society groups to offer corrections or additional information.

  • The INCB should provide greater opportunity for exchange with UN member states, UN
    agencies with relevant mandates, civil society, and HIV/AIDS experts. INCB country missions should include greater opportunities for engagement with these groups.

  • The World Health Organization, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and UN member states should ensure that INCB members include persons with expertise in HIV/AIDS policy and international law.

  • The INCB should articulate, and ECOSOC should evaluate, public guidelines to clarify when INCB members are speaking for the Board, and how misstatements of fact can be corrected.

  • The UN Secretary-General should commission an independent evaluation of the INCB, including a scientific evaluation of the Board’s statements on health, and an examination of Board members’ independence and expertise, with particular attention to HIV, international law and human rights.

Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and International Harm Reduction Development Program (IHRD) of the Open Society Institute