UN System-Wide Coherence

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Executive Director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, wrote a letter to the delegates negotiating the Political Declaration for the 52nd session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna on March 11-12, 2009, dedicated to review of the progress achieved and the difficulties encountered by in meeting the goals and targets set out in the 1998 UNGASS.

He urged the Commission to further advance UN system-wide coherence in relation to the evidence in support of harm reduction measures to tackle drug use and HIV prevention.

Some delegations are still stalling the acceptance of harm reduction in the Political Declaration and its annex, despite the fact that other UN bodies already recognize the considerable body of strong and consistent evidence on the effectiveness of harm reduction approaches.

In his letter Sidibé outlined the relevant UN resolutions and decisions that already accept harm reduction. The only UN body that – against all evidence – still refuses to include an endorsement to harm reduction is the CND.

Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS use the term harm reduction as a matter of course. In fact, the UN fully endorses the fundamental principles of harm reduction. If anything has had any measurable success in the past decade of drug control policies, it is the introduction of harm reduction measures in over 80 countries.

This has happened despite the opposition of the UN drug control system. At the 1998 UNGASS harm reduction was completely ignored. In assessing progress achieved and the difficulties encountered the UN drug control system has not made any progress on the goals and targets they established ten years ago. If anything, the drug problem has been somewhat contained, and even that is an optimistic view of the situation today.

Legal experts of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have argued, in a confidential memorandum, that most harm reduction measures are indeed acceptable under the conventions. In reference to those articles in the conventions that the experts interpreted as being on tense legal footing with harm reduction, the document states: “It could even be argued that the drug control treaties, as they stand, have been rendered out of synch with reality.”

To not recognize the single significant progress made – the introduction of effective harm reduction measures to counter the spread of HIV/AIDS and tackle problematic drug use – would be a major setback. It will only show how out of touch with reality the UN drug control system is.