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How a Small Programme for Injecting Drug Users in Canada Exposes Tensions in the United Nations

07/10/2011 13:59 | Updated 05 December 2011

Last Friday the Canadian Supreme Court issued a ruling ordering the Government to permit 'Insite', Canada's only safe injection facility, to remain open. Insite is a place where people can inject drugs they've bought on the street with sterile equipment and under medical supervision. The site has proven to reduce crime, overdose deaths and blood borne viruses, and has helped people access treatment when they were ready. The Court found that the Minister of Health had violated Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms in not allowing the project to remain open, and ordered the Minister to remedy the situation. The ruling was simple - Insite saves lives and does no harm to public health or security. Insite workers were in tears, and drug policy advocates around the world cheered. It had been a long struggle with the Harper administration dragging this small harm reduction programme through three courts.

In March next year the United Nations will likely condemn the decision. The condemnation will come from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in its annual report launched each March. The INCB's job is to oversee the implementation of the three main UN drugs treaties and is of the view that that Insite's existence violates those treaties. It does not.

Another UN office, in this case that of the Special Rapporteur on the right to health (Anand Grover from India), will do doubt welcome the Canadian decision. In a recent report submitted to UN member states at the UN General Assembly, Mr Grover called for the roll-out of harm reduction services including safe injection facilities in order to help realise the right to the highest attainable standard of health of people who inject drugs (alongside many other interventions, of course). So not only do safe injection facilities not violate international laws, they may be protected by them.

The INCB, however, issued a defensive public response to Grover's report. This is a rarity in the UN system, which prizes 'system coherence' and unity. A suggestion to reform the drug control system was enough to pierce that veil. And it was not just the INCB, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), part of the UN Secretariat and headed by the UN drug tsar, co-signed the response.

Since taking up the post only a year ago, the head of the UNODC, Yury Fedotov, has visited many countries, making public statements about national drug control strategies. In Iran he lauded the Government's 'robust' policies and failed to mention the killing spree Iran has been on in recent years. In New York he met with Thai officials and, according to those officials, supported the Government's re-launch of the 'war on drugs', without criticising plans to round up tens of thousands drug users and forcibly 'treat' them (read: detain without trial, a basic violation of human rights law). In Colombia he praised the Government's counter-narcotics efforts without raising concerns about the aerial fumigation of coca, whether in terms of health damage, environmental damage or human displacement. In Mexico he praised the Government's efforts in countering the cartels and failed to mention the violence the authorities have sparked, the 1,000 children dead, or the almost 1000% increase in complaints to human rights commissions in the country since 2006.

In each of these cases UN human rights monitors have raised serious concerns.

In a rather chilling passage from a report released in March this year the INCB referred to Mexico's 'tremendous efforts' in fighting the drug trade, while noting without comment the 28,000 people dead (at the time) in the country's war on drugs since 2006. Elsewhere in the same report the Board praised Singapore's anti-drug law which includes caning and the death penalty; the approach of the Maldives which includes heavy criminal penalties for drug use and corporal punishment; and Russia's news strategy which bans opioid substitution therapy, a core HIV prevention measure, until 2020.

In each case, UN human rights monitors have raised serious concerns.

Meanwhile the INCB has initiated a crusade against Bolivia in its attempts to reconcile its human rights and drug control obligations. Bolivia has sought to amend its obligations under a core UN drugs treaty in order to allow for cultural and traditional uses of coca by indigenous Andean groups. The INCB has condemned this publicly and has raised it as a concern to member states at the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC).

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (which reports to ECOSOC) and other UN human rights mechanisms support the move.

Unfortunately this is more than just internal squabbling in the UN. These are not individuals, but entities, and more than that again, these are regimes: drug control and human rights. What the INCB and UNODC are doing is not only entrenching punitive and abusive approaches to drugs - they are undermining the already weak UN human rights system, while allowing those responsible for abusive and in some cases illegal policies the ability to hold their heads high and say 'Look, the UN says we're doing a great job'.

The Insite case is a huge win for reason, public health and compassion in Canada. It is a win for human rights. And it exposes not only tensions in Canada but within the international system when it comes to drug control, health and human rights. When the UN condemns the decision as it will in March next year, just remember who's speaking, get the salt out, and take a pinch.

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