Successful harm reduction programs is a goal for many people around the world.
In the U.S. this goal is harder to reach given the recently re-imposed ban on federal funding for needle exchange. This ban reaches into federal aid programs like PEPFAR (The United States’ President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) where aid to other countries is constrained by this ban.
At a session about the effects of U.S. drug policy, Allan Clear from the New York based Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) spoke about the challenges of advocating for changes to U.S. domestic drug policy. Until the Obama administration, organizations like HRC had no access to the Whitehouse Office on National Drug Control Policy. They chose instead, to work through the U.S. delegation to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. In other words, they had to leave the country to talk about domestic drug policy. It took 10 days of convincing officials in Vienna that the HRC was worth their time. As Clear stated, U.S. officials were fearful of meeting with groups characterized as “legalizers”.
Since Obama’s election in 2008, groups like the HRC have met and talked with representatives from the ONDCP. While there is little to no uptake on issues like decriminalization, the relationships between these key players has warmed somewhat. Perhaps this has something to do with Gil Kerlikowske’s willingness to publicly support harm reduction initiatives like syringe exchange. But despite these warmer relations, other speakers at this session warned about U.S. complicity in drug policy abuses around the world.
A recently released a report entitled Partners in Crime: International Funding for Drug Control and Gross Violations of Human Rights, examined how international aid provided through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is used to support drug control policies and practices that violate human rights. As the report noted, the US government contributed USD $736,800 to a UNODC interdiction and seizure capacity project in Vietnam. Key indicators adopted to measure the project’s success or failure was ‘a progressive increase in the number of individuals arrested by the Interdiction Task Force Units…At least 24 people were sentenced to death for drug offences in 2010 and at least 27 drug offenders were sentenced to death in 2011.”
Damon Barrett, Deputy Director of Harm Reduction International and co-author of the report said, “There are no safeguards – when the UN acts as a conduit for these funds, a further layer of bureaucracy separates the money from the abuses. Instead of the UN being a guardian of human rights it becomes more like a laundry mechanism, washing the funds of any form of accountability.”
And Canadians can’t be smug about this one, either. The report also documents how Canada’s aid flows to projects in places like Afghanistan where the funding is sometimes used to violate human rights in the name of global drug control.