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US pressure to silence United Nations support for harm reduction and needle exchange


Open letter to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND)


The US is pressing various UN agencies to silence UN support for harm reduction and needle exchange. For more on this story, click here (and then click on harm reduction).

United Nations Office of Drug Control (UNODC) has bowed to US pressure and has decided to remove references to harm reduction and needle/syringe exchange in UNODC documents, websites. publications and statements. Funding has been pulled from some harm reduction related activities.

UNODC at a country level has been an important and sometimes leading partner in fighting HIV/AIDS among vulnerable groups, and a strong advocate for better HIV and drug policy based on scientific evidence and human rights.

The US is a major donor for UNODC and other UN agencies, which makes it vulnerable to US pressure. We need to support the UN position on harm reduction and protect achievements in the fight against HIV on the international and country level.

A group of organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, International Harm Reduction Development Program, International Harm Reduction Association, Central Eastern European Harm Reduction Network, Transnational Institute, The Beckley Foundation, European AIDS Treatment Group and many others are undertaking a series of activities addressing this issue. Some of these will focus on delegates of Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). The thematic debate of the Forty-eighth session of CND, March 7-14 in Vienna, will be devoted to HIV/AIDS.


Could you please :

1) as an organization or as an individual add your support now to the Open Letter (that follows below) to delegates of the Forty-eighth session of CND.

To sign simply send your name, organisation, city and country and email to Jennifer Nagle at . Indicate whether this is organisational or individual support.

The letter will be delivered to all CND delegates and to Antonio Costa.

2) Inform your media contacts of US pressure on the UN and encourage them to cover this story.

Please keep me up to date with any activities you undertake.

Prof Gerry Stimson Executive Director International Harm Reduction Association
Promoting harm reduction on a global basis London Office: 44 (0) 20 8332 2164



Open letter
An Open Letter to the delegates of the Forty-eighth session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND):

In a year when the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)is chair of the governing body of the UN's Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS(UNAIDS), we write to express concern about U.S. efforts to force a UNODC retreat from support of syringe exchange, methadone maintenance and other measures proven to contain the spread of HIV among drug users.

Injection drug use accounts for the majority of HIV infections in dozens of countries in Asia and the former Soviet Union, including Russia, China, all of Central Asia, and much of Southeast Asia. In most countries outside Africa, the largest number of new infections now occur among injection drug users. As UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa noted at the July 2004 International AIDS Conference, effective responses to injection driven AIDS epidemics require expanded HIV prevention, including syringe exchange, rather than policies that accelerate HIV infections through widespread and indiscriminate imprisonment.

Unfortunately, recent events suggest that UNODC-under pressure from the United States-is being asked to withdraw support from proven HIV prevention strategies at precisely the moment when increased commitment to measures such as syringe exchange and opiate substitution treatment is needed. It is particularly alarming that the silencing of UNODC is occurring in a year when the agency is chair of UNAIDS' Committee of Co-sponsoring Organizations and in a year when HIV prevention is a focus of thematic debate at the 48th meeting of the CND. Among the events that have particularly heightened our concern are:

  • Mr. Costa, who last year expressed support for positive changes in the Russian criminal code, expansion of syringe exchange in countries facing injection driven epidemics and other measures to reduce drug-related harm, has apparently been rebuked by the U.S. State Department. Following meeting with Robert Charles, U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Mr. Costa pledged to review all UNODC electronic and printed documents for references to "harm reduction" and to be "even more vigilant in the future."
  • In Southeast Asia, UNODC has suspended a program that sought to reduce drug users' vulnerability to HIV prevention through approaches that emphasized public health and drug users' human rights, rather than punishment.
  • Even syringe exchange, affirmed as an effective and essential part of HIV prevention by UNAIDS, WHO, and UN member nations, has become politically unpalatable. A November e-mail from a senior UNODC staff member asked junior staff to "to ensure that references to harm reduction and needle/syringe exchange are avoided in UNODC documents, publications and statements."


We recognize that UNODC is dependent on contributions from donor nations, and that the U.S. is the single largest donor to UN drug control. At the same time, the lives of hundreds of thousands depend on sound, scientific approaches to HIV prevention. Numerous studies, including U.S. government studies, have found that strategies such as syringe exchange and methadone maintenance demonstrably diminish HIV transmission and other health risks.

The fact that U.S. delegates declare the evidence in support of syringe exchange "unconvincing," as they did in last year's CND session, should not be allowed to determine the course of the UN drug control and HIV prevention efforts, which are inextricably and essentially linked. Nor should UNODC-a co-sponsor of UNAIDS, and an agency with an essential role to play in the course of the HIV epidemic-be asked to refrain from public statements about needle exchange simply because they do not fall within the realm of what the U.S. deems acceptable.

Strategies that attempt solely to achieve abstinence from drug used not constitute an acceptable alternative to programs, such as syringe exchange, that help active drug users protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. Experience has shown that "zero tolerance" drug control efforts can have the effect of driving injection drug users underground and away from drug treatment and other health services. This is particularly true where, as in many countries, counter-narcotics efforts lead to false arrest, beatings and extortion by police, prolonged detention without trial, forced drug treatment, disproportionate incarceration in cruel conditions and, in some cases, extrajudicial execution. Programs such as syringe exchange and opiate substitution, by contrast, both prevent HIV infection and provide abridge to other health services. Restricting these programs is a blatant infringement of drug users' human right to health.

As you gather this year to debate HIV/AIDS prevention and drug abuse, we respectfully urge you to support syringe exchange, opiate substitution treatment and other harm reduction approaches demonstrated to reduce HIV risk; to affirm the human rights of drug users to health and health services; and to reject efforts to overrule science and tie the hands of those working on the front lines. No less than the future of the HIV epidemic is at stake.

Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
World Health Organization Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
International Narcotics Control Board





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