‘Dignity and equality for people who use drugs’ – was a slogan under which Eurasian Harm Reduction Network mobilized while on its first mission to the world’s 13th Crime Congress in Doha, Qatar on 12-19 April. My role as EHRN envoy to this conference and a participant of the Congress was simple - bring the voices of those most vulnerable on the ground to the ears of global policy makers at this major world criminal justice event.
The 13th Crime Congress organised by the UN and very much driven by discussions on the issues of crime prevention either at national or international levels, largely focused on criminal justice and wider reforms in administration of justice. Not many statements in the official program of the Congress made to address drug policies, even fewer mention the upcoming UNGASS2016. One could sense the carefulness in the tone and the manner in which debates on drug policy were conducted in relation to crime prevention at the high level segments, rhetoric very much shaped by prohibitionist pathos, with limited or no mention of health aspects. Doha Declaration – the final outcome document of the Crime Congress (para. 8.K.1) further urges UN member states to intensify the efforts to address ‘world drug problem’, sadly, political correctness plays its role disregarding health aspect of the problem, abuse, violence and human rights violations committed in the name of such drug control.
This year’s satellite program of UN Crime Congress witnessed abundant discussions on topics that were hardly spoken about in previous UN Crime Congresses. Topics such as public health and injecting drug use, HIV and other infectious diseases, people who use drugs, sex work and freedom of sexuality, drug policies and human rights, women who use drugs and law enforcement partnership were among many proposed debates in ancillary meetings. International non-governmental organisations and experts called for decriminalization of drugs and human rights based approaches to drug policies. The briefing paper by Penal Reform International, which was launched at the Congress, spoke on devastating impact of existing drug policies including petty drug arrests causing overcrowding of prison system and breaking down the criminal justice system. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime presented data on harm reduction and injecting drug use highlighting the need for urgent scale up of health and treatment services for those in need. Sounding voices of women who use drugs and become victims of police violence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) seemed too important not to mention.
Themes discussed and promoted in the Crime Congress once again ascertains a real shift in thinking among modern criminal justice reforms and resonates work EHRN has been undertaking in Eastern Europe and Central Asia almost for two decades. However, it seemed that state delegations from EECA needed motivation to speak up on their drug policy reforms. Many countries still in stagnation and the moment of waiting - the status quo too comfortable, and the unknown too scary to undertake reforms that will tailor existing drug policies to the international human rights obligations that each country is bound by. Among high-level speakers from EECA, the Georgian Minister of Justice was the only one to highlight importance of balanced approach to drug policies, yet failed to offer a holistic proposal to solve the growing HIV epidemic among injecting drug users.
More questions have been unfolded by the end of Crime Congress; as I leave Qatar, questions on mobilisation of marginalised communities on the ground, educating peers on global matters of drug policy and enabling them to hold rational and educated debates with their national counterparts sprung up in my thoughts. The feeling of satisfaction – we are on the right track, and the constant seeking out – what shall we do even better to promote humane and just drug policies in the region overrides the tiredness. And knowing the power and strength and the knowledge of my peers back home, gives me hope for unified efforts in our common struggle ahead.