Day 3 - Beyond 2008 NGO Forum on Drugs: NGO Declaration approved with strong harm reduction and human rights content

Date: 10 July 2008

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007.JPGThe final day of the ‘Beyond 2008 NGO Forum’ continued discussion and debate over the wording of a civil society Declaration on drug use to be submitted to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND).

Again, much debate took place between a small number of primarily US-based anti-drug groups, who consistently opposed insertions of references to 'harm reduction' and/or the participation of people who use drugs in the text, and the vast majority of the rest of the 300 international delegates.

After much effort and compromise during Day 2, Day 3 saw the successful inclusion by consensus of a specific acknowledgment of human rights abuses against people who use drugs as an ‘affected population’, calling upon Member States, UNODC and other relevant organisations to solicit the participation of all affected and stigmatised populations in identifying and responding to the issues faced by these communities. This falls in a prominent place within the document, in an early paragraph of the overarching Declaration. YouthRISE along with other youth delegates also successfully lobbied for pre-ambular text recognising the needs and contribution of young people in drug work.

Unfortunately, a similar pre-ambular paragraph, jointly submitted by Harm Reduction International and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, recalling that the UN drug conventions must be interpreted in manner consistent with the human rights obligations in the Charter of the United Nations, was not able to be considered before the final plenary debate ran out of time. However, despite this missed opportunity, significant human rights language was successfully inserted throughout the Declaration by these and other NGO delegates.

Day 3 also saw a major dispute concerning the inclusion of ‘drug policy’ in a paragraph on the role of NGOs in reflecting the experiences of those most affected by the adverse health and social consequences of drugs. The inclusion of reference to the possibility of adverse social and health consequence of not only 'drug use' but also ‘drug policy’ met with significant opposition from a small number of groups, led again by Project SUNDIAL and the Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF), who expressed dissatisfaction at the inclusion of drug policy in this context. (Interestingly, the North American consultation organised by DFAF in St. Petersburg, Florida yielded the only regional report which emphasised positive consequences of drug policies. All the other regional reports, including the second North American consultation held in Vancouver, highlighted the many negative consequences of the relevant drug policies that they had witnessed.)

Part of this objection was based on the suggestion that NGOs do not work on drug policy (which seems strange given that both DFAF and SUNDIAL highlight their own work in drug policy on their websites). In the end, the reference to ‘drug policy’ as an area of NGO work in the drugs field was successfully added, in part after Harm Reduction International requested that all the NGOs present in the Forum raise their voting cards overhead if drug policy was an area in which their organisation did work (a bit of a cheeky tactic that was not well appreciated by the Chair, but one which vividly illustrated the involvement of NGOs in drug policy as more than half the delegates raised their cards in support).

Interestingly, much of the opposition to this and to harm reduction language by the US anti-drug lobby appeared to be influenced, or even directed, by a representative of the US State Department, who although attending as an ‘Observer’ was clearly visible during Days 1 and 3 passing messages to US anti-harm reduction groups immediately before the groups intervened in the debates (see photo above of the US government 'Observer', in black, conferring with two of the US-based zero-tolerance groups during the debate over the term 'drug policy' described above). Indeed, some of the groups involved were seated directly in front of the representatives of Harm Reduction International, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the International Harm Reduction Development Program of the Open Society Institute, so it was impossible not to notice these conversations occurring. Indeed, the US 'Observer' quite publicly lambasted the Forum's Chairperson at the close of Day 1 over disagreements she had with his procedural and drafting decisions. Why the US government would care about the drafting process of an NGO Forum can only be presumed. (For another account of this see 'A Spy in the House' on the Drug Policy Blog of the American Civil Liberties Union, who also had a representative at the NGO Forum).

So obvious was this behaviour that it was raised from the plenary floor by the New York-based Harm Reduction Coalition, which asked (not unreasonably given that these very visible shenanigans were going on at what was intended to be a civil society forum) that all government Observers, while certainly welcome, should be asked to formally identify themselves. The Chairperson refused this request on the (incorrect) basis that NGO observers attending CND do not have to identify themselves, so it would therefore be unfair to expect government observers to do so at the NGO Forum. (In truth, anyone who has ever attended CND will know that NGO delegates are easily identifiable by the fact that we are given different coloured UN identification badges than are government delegates. Indeed, CND rules even allow for ALL civil society observers to be excluded from CND sessions on the request of government delegations.)

Despite such strategic and often mean spirited efforts by some of these zero-tolerance groups (which included having the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union banned from videoing the proceedings!) by the end of Day 3 all 300 delegates had successfully worked through the Declaration line by line and reached consensus. All in all, an important meeting, a significant advance in the acceptance of harm reduction and a clear indication that this is now the dominant global mainstream drug policy framework (except in the US), and a major setback for critics of harm reduction and the US hegemonic perspective.

Indeed, one of the more interesting lessons of the Forum was to see how ill-prepared and ill-equipped the anti-harm reduction lobby was to actually engage in debate and defend their positions. This of course is a situation much different to harm reduction advocates, who are well used to having to defend, debate and articulate our approach and the logic and research base supporting it. It was pretty clear that the zero-tolerance crowd don't get out much, in terms of meeting anyone other than themselves, and therefore rarely have to defend themselves against knowledgeable and evidence-based critiques.

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