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Can UN Leadership Fix Broken Drug Policies? A Call for Ban Ki Moon in Advance of the 2016 UNGASS

17/11/2015 10:51 GMT | Updated 16/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Last month, close to 1000 advocates, service providers, community leaders, researchers and government representatives met in Kuala Lumpur for the 24th International Harm Reduction conference. This year, the conference took place in Asia to inspire the region to consider drug policies that offer alternatives to the failed goal of Drug Free Asia by 2015 set by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Malaysia was selected for two reasons. First, to highlight the good and the bad - Malaysia's commitment to improve lives of people using drugs by scaling up harm reduction services and evidence based drug treatment and also, Malaysia's death mandatory death penalty for drug offences. Somewhat uncomfortably, both approaches sit alongside each other and while hundreds of people are receiving methadone treatment, and close to a thousand are on death row for drug offences.

This spring, the UN will convene a special assembly session on drugs (UNGASS), providing a perfect opportunity for the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to lead on an issue that is of urgency in his own region.

The UN Commission on Human Rights has acknowledged that the global drug problem violates human rights in five areas - the right to health, the rights relating to criminal justice and discrimination, the rights of the child and the rights of indigenous peoples - and recognizes the need for the forthcoming UNGASS to better integrate human rights into the outcome documents.

Ban Ki-Moon has personally called for an end to the imposition of the death penalty, acknowledging that the death penalty does not deter drug crimes. He also endorsed the decision by the United States to release 6,000 prisoners from federal prisons for disproportionately long drugs sentences. Building on these bold statements, his continued leadership is urgently needed in other areas of drug policy reform.

He is poised to enact transformative decisions that can save the millions of lives and improve thousands of communities across the world that have been destroyed by the current the global drug control system. Will he take on this challenge?

In 2001, with the world reeling from a global AIDS crisis, AIDS activists from across the world and few governments mobilized around the UN special session on AIDS to review and question the tragic status quo, which assumed that expensive AIDS drugs cannot be available to the millions who were dying terrible, painful, degrading deaths because of AIDS in the Global South.

The leadership of then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was a critical factor that challenged this assumption. He witnessed the effects of the AIDS crisis that was destroying his home continent and seized the opportunity to make sweeping change. He sought innovative solutions that did not have to exist with the UN framing and as a result, paved the way for creation of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria - a fund sitting outside of the UN. This was a brave and controversial move by Annan who understood that UN agencies are too slow for the urgent response that was needed and that they will not take on the pharmaceutical industry charging disgraceful amounts for a yearly supply of life saving medication. It also supported a view of the UN as self-reflective and able to put saving lives ahead of its own institutional interests.

As a result of his action, and then others undertaken by various governments, the number of AIDS-related deaths declined by nearly one-third from 2005-2011. Eight million people in low- and middle-income countries currently receive HIV treatment.

Similar to Kofi Annan, Ban Ki Moon's home continent of Asia bore some of the harshest and most repressive drug policies. Home to draconian drug detention camps, severe corporal punishment practices and many countries who still practice the death penalty and public executions, the population has suffered immensely at the hands of the current drug control regime. In Singapore alone, at least 326 people have been executed for drugs since 1991. Throughout East and South East Asian, more than 235,000 people are detained in over 1000 compulsory drug detention centers, experiencing a range of human rights abuses during their time there - which can last from months to years. This has to change.

We've seen some countries and regions take on the drug policy challenges head on, but now we must look to make these changes on a global scale. Portugal has decriminalized drugs and emptied prisons. Governments in Switzerland, Germany, Spain, along with the cities of Vancouver or and Copenhagen, have opened the doors of clinics to people who use drugs and gave them a safer space to inject. These smart, bold policy-makers should be asking their counterparts across the world and calling on the UN to say, 'Why not you?'

The UN Special Session on drug policy falls at the end of Ban Ki Moon's tenure as Secretary General. Will he, similarly to his predecessor, be motivated to provide the vision and leadership necessary for real change? The 2001 UN special session on HIV/AIDS was important turning point the AIDS movement. Fifteen years later we have an opportunity to make 2016 as important to the drug policy movement.

Five months in advance of the UNGASS, participants at the International Harm Reduction Conference and other members of civil society around the world are on stand by and ready to work with global leaders to challenge the drug control system that is hardwired into our global machinery. The current regime perpetuates social injustices, violates human rights and destroys communities. The cost of doing nothing, especially in Asia, is unacceptable.

Kofi Annan had the wisdom to recognize that UN agencies and their complex governance bodies, entrenched relationships and bureaucratic machineries would not be able to deliver what was required. Ban Ki-Moon needs to do the same and recognize that much of the UN is too invested in the prohibitionist paradigm they created and enforced are unable to lead the world in the process of change that the post UNGASS process will require.

Saving lives of his people dying of AIDS is Kofi Annan's legacy. Ban Ki Moon's legacy could be ushering us into a new era of drug policy. The world is ready.