Why UNGASS matters for young people who use drugs in Ukraine

By Elena Voskrenskaya, Director AIDS Foundation East-West (AFEW) Ukraine

DSC00159Today’s youth, tomorrow’s key populations?

For many years, people who use drugs in Ukraine, especially those younger than 18 years, have been facing serious barriers that prevent them from accessing support services. The strict drug legislation, resulting from the global war on drugs, aims to punish people who use drugs rather than tackle the drug dealers. Moreover, the discriminating attitude of service providers and the lack of understanding within communities leave thousands of young people without proper treatment and care.

Care in a friendly environment

Although nowadays adults have better access to harm reduction, which is the most effective method to prevent HIV, children and adolescents who use drugs are left without this support in Ukraine. Also fear of being punished discourages young people to seek medical, legal and other services. The traditional available methods are limited to promoting immediate abstinence from drugs, in most cases with involvement of parents and schools and by informing the police. AFEW-Ukraine embraces innovative approaches. For four and a half years in four regions of Ukraine, we support services that give proper care in a friendly and encouraging environment. The aim is to support young people who use drugs in dealing with challenges and adjusting to life – no matter whether she or he stops using drugs or not. The method works because the services are based on consultations with community representatives and are aligned to the needs of young people.

‘I wanted a thrill’

The Compass Drop-In Centre in Kharkiv is one of the locations that offers services to young people. Oleksandr (17), a client of the centre, told me about his experiences: ‘I tried drugs for the first time when I was 14. Well, the very first time I was 11. I was bored, I wanted a thrill. I got in with the wrong crowd and it was normal. Then I started to suffer from paranoia and panic attacks. My dad is a policeman. But now my relatives really support me coming to the centre. I am more communicative with them now and I have more friends – I communicate more. This has a lot to do with the psychological support I have received here.’ Svitlana, another client of the Drop-In Centre, added: ‘I can’t remember being happy as a child, but I’m happy in the centre.‘


Maryna, psychologist in the centre in Kharkiv, explains that UNGASS is important for the people who use drugs and for the service providers: ‘If any declaration or action plan is adopted globally, it might help us in dealing with the local authorities. And when there is a certain strategy employed by a huge number of stakeholders, this will benefit initiatives for young people at the local level.’

Watch the video ‘Today’s youth, tomorrow’s key populations?’ about young people who use drugs in Ukraine

Without the right solution for the worldwide drug challenge, we cannot stop HIV

From 19 till 21 April 2016, nearly 200 UN member states will come together to discuss the solution for the ‘world drug problem’. We spoke to Edo, whose voice will represent the voices of the drug user community during the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS).



During UNGASS the member states hope to find a solution for the ‘world drug problem’. Will you be present at this high-level meeting in New York?

‘Yes, I’m excited that I can attend UNGASS. The meeting is quite special, because the last session on drugs was long ago, in 1998. The member states that pushed for the session are of the opinion that the world needs to reconsider the current approach, which has failed. I will be there as a member of the community of people who use drugs. In this role, I will for example speak at a side event of Amnesty International and participate in a meeting about the development of guidelines for a human rights-based approach to drug control. It is very important that the voices of the people who use drugs are heard. In Indonesia, they are systematically stigmatised and criminalised, and the implementation of the country’s policy is worse than the drugs itself. People who use drugs are the most affected population by this policy.’

You will represent a network of organisations for and by people who use drugs in Indonesia, PKNI. How did you prepare for this meeting?

‘PKNI gave input to the Civil Society Task Force in Southeast Asia, which submitted recommendations for the UNGASS outcome document. In addition, PKNI shared its concerns and ideas about the drug policy in Indonesia during a meeting with Indonesian government representatives. Civil society groups also released a statement, ‘Diplomacy or denialism?’. Our role is to monitor and be a key partner in a positive relationship, and we hope that the decisions made during UNGASS will be more legitimate and effective. Before and during the Special Session, we work together in a consortium because in this way we can make our voices louder. Over the years, the movement to end the war on drugs has been growing stronger and stronger. While we continue to fight our small battles, we must unite to ensure that no country or region is left out.’

What would be the solution to the ‘world drug problem’?

The punitive approach must end. The leaders of the world should develop a new strategy that takes into account development, public health and human rights – a humane drug policy.
‘Like Einstein said: ‘Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. Illicit drug use is placed under the health goal in the Sustainable Development Goals. To achieve the goals and to end AIDS, drug policy reforms should prioritise health and a human rights approach.’

Published on www.hivgaps.org on April 18, 2016

AFEW’s Seminars at the 5th Eastern Europe and Central Asia AIDS Conference

eecaacAs part of AFEW’s strategy to keep the dialogue with the countries we work in and to support our local partners that implement groundbreaking projects for people who use drugs, sex workers, people living with HIV and other key populations, AFEW is organising or taking part in the following seminars during the 5th Eastern Europe and Central Asia AIDS Conference (EECAAC) in Moscow:

Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations – Successes, Achievements, and Challenges
The objective of this seminar is to share the results of the “Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations” programme, and the People ho Use Drugs Project in particular. We will focus on interventions developed, including: youth activities in Ukraine, e-learning and knowledge platforms in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, prison activities in Georgia, and the exchange of information with other harm reduction organisations in the programme, and with other key populations

When: March 24, 11:30 – 13:00
Where: BIRYUSA Hall
Janine Wildschut, Project Manager, AIDS Foundation East-West
Anke van Dam: Director, AIDS Foundation East-West
Ikrom Ibragimov: Director, Public Foundation AIDS Foundation East-West in Tajikistan

How Community Involvement in Research Leads to More Effective Interventions
presentation of research opportunities for community based organisations that work with key populations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. By equipping community members with tools to conduct research and collect data, their capacity is increased and the research results reflect an inside perspective as to needs and priorities to design future intervention programmes

When: March 24, 13:30 – 15:00
Where: BAIKAL Hall
Anke van Dam: Director, AIDS Foundation East-West
Natalya Shumskaya: Director, Public Foundation AIDS Foundation East-West in Kyrgyzstan 

Community-Based Efforts to Ensure Access to HIV Treatment
The work of the community within the project “Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations”

When: March 25, 13:30 – 15:00
Where: Congress Hall 1
Speakers/Presenters: Anke van Dam: Director, AIDS Foundation East-West

Information Exchange and Cooperation between the European Union and the Countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia Region
The main theme of this seminar is the expansion of HIV prevention and treatment services for key populations as a key element of the HIV response strategy in the EU and EECA region. Participants will become familiar with the most illustrative examples of the activities of the civil society as well as identify gaps that must be filled from the civil society’s point of view

When: March 25, 15:30 – 17:00
Where: BIRYUSA Hall
Anke van Dam: Director, AIDS Foundation East-West
Olga Alexandrova: Head of the programmes and projects, East Europe & Central Asia Union of PLWH (ECUO)
Michael Krone: Executive Coordinator, AIDS Action Europe
Ljuba Böttger, Communications Coordinator, AIDS Action Europe

In addition to these, AFEW’s partners will be presenting their work with key populations.

Nadezhda Sharonova from NGO “Podruga” in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, will speak on the Specifics of Prevention and Treatment among Female Sex Workers.

When: March 25, 11:30 – 13:00

NGO “Podruga” is the only organisation in the south of Kyrgyzstan that works specifically with women who use drugs, sex workers and former prisoners.

Finally, AFEW is also involved in the key population photo exhibition “Every life matters”, jointly organised by partners of Bridging the Gaps. These are stories of six people that invite to step into their world and experience what it is like to be a drug user living with HIV in Nepal, a young gay man in Botswana, a female sex worker in Uganda, a male sex worker in Vietnam, a woman who uses drugs and a young gay man in Kyrgyzstan. The exhibition features a unique combination of photos made by these community members themselves and complementary photos that were made by award winning photographer Chris de Bode. Through their photo stories, we want to create more visibility about the challenges they encounter and the HIV risks they face.

The 5th Eastern Europe and Central Asia AIDS Conference will bring together 2500 scientists, experts, healthcare professionals, policy makers and civil society representatives who will exchange best practices and jointly strategize about how to achieve the UNAIDS target of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.



UNGASSMarch 14, 2016—We, the undersigned civil society organisations, representing drug policy expertise and affected communities worldwide, express our serious concerns about the preparations and draft Outcome Document for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the “world drug problem” in April 2016.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the UNGASS to be a “wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options”, and an inclusive discussion was promised, taking into account the perspectives of all stakeholders, member states, UN agencies, academia and civil society. The UNGASS is a critical opportunity for an honest assessment of what is, and what is not, working in global drug control. It is an opportunity to find a new consensus that addresses the reality of the failure and negative consequences of existing policies.

The UNGASS process has failed to recognise the lack of progress achieved by international drug control over the past 50 years – substances under international control are more widely available and affordable than ever. It has failed to acknowledge the damage caused by current approaches: systemic human rights abuses, and continued use of the death penalty for drug offences; exacerbation of HIV and hepatitis C transmission; intolerably inadequate access to controlled drugs for medical purposes; 187,000 avoidable drug-related deaths each year; violence, corruption and killings perpetuated by criminal drug markets; systemic stigmatization of people who use drugs; destruction of subsistence farmers’ livelihoods by forced crop eradication; and billions of dollars of public money wasted on drug policies that demonstrably do not work.

Given the highly problematic, non-inclusive and non-transparent nature of the preparatory process, the UNGASS is now perilously close to representing a serious systemic failure of the UN system. By failing to engage in meaningful critique, new ideas or language, the UNGASS Outcome Document is at risk of becoming an expensive restatement of previous agreements and conventions. This would represent a major failing for the General Assembly – and a betrayal for the member states, UN agencies, civil society, and public who have demanded so much more.

Problems with the UNGASS preparatory process

The process has been dominated by the status quo forces of the Vienna-based UN drug control apparatus. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and its secretariat in the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna were tasked with leading the preparations, instead of the UN General Assembly itself in New York. These Vienna institutions have actively sought to exclude innovative and forward-looking proposals from member states, other UN agencies, and civil society – perpetuating the same power struggles and paralysis that have hindered the Vienna debate on drug control for decades.

Many member states from the global south, notably the Caribbean and Africa, do not have permanent representation in Vienna and have been largely unable to participate in the negotiations on the Outcome Document. The General Assembly encouraged the participation of all member states in the UNGASS preparations and requested the “provision of assistance to the least developed countries” for this purpose; but no extra budgetary resources seem to have been made available. In order to ensure an “inclusive and effective preparatory process”, the CND secretariat set up a website that includes many useful contributions. However, the CND secretariat appears to use the website as a parking lot for dissenting ideas rather than promoting it as a resource for inputs in the negotiations. Finally, the negotiations have mostly taken place in closed informal meetings rather than official ‘intersessionals’ – excluding civil society participation and contributing to the lack of transparency.

These problems have been compounded by the self-imposed reliance on consensus-based decision-making in Vienna and a push from many member states to finalise the Outcome Document before it gets to the General Assembly. This means that a handful of vocal and regressive countries can block progressive language – whereas other parts of the UN system (including the General Assembly) take votes on key issues whenever needed. The notion of a global consensus on drugs is untenable: today, people face the death penalty in some countries for possessing drugs that are legally regulated in others. Consensus can be valuable, but where polarisation exists, it can result in statements that fail to capture genuine policy tensions that merit honest discussion and debate.

Problems with the draft UNGASS Outcome Document

Member states agreed to produce “a short, substantive, concise and action-oriented document” that proposes “ways to address long-standing and emerging challenges in countering the world drug problem”. Yet the draft Outcome Document is now a long way from this aspiration:

  • The current draft has sprawled to over ten pages and more than 100 paragraphs, yet includes almost no operational outcomes or actions to address the countless challenges, tensions and contradictions that exist in international drug control. Proposals that the UNGASS at least establish an expert advisory group to undertake a critical review and elaborate recommendations for modernising the system towards 20195 have so far been rejected.
  • Rather than considering “all options”, the draft simply reaffirms the current approach and is devastating in its failure to acknowledge the damage of punitive policies noted above. These costs have been highlighted repeatedly in submissions to the UNGASS from civil society, UN agencies and member states, yet the draft document claims “tangible and measurable progress”, providing no justification or explanation of what progress this refers to.
  • The current draft is not a balanced reflection of the formal UNGASS submissions and recommendations made by UN agencies. Many of these submissions explicitly call for ending the criminalization of people who use drugs, but this point has been excluded from successive drafts of the Outcome Document negotiated in Vienna demonstrating a lack of coherence across the UN family. Furthermore many inputs from the Civil Society Task Force, NGOs, member states and regional groups have also been neglected, most notably calls for the abolition
    of the death penalty for drug offences.
  • Despite explicit acknowledgement of the term ‘harm reduction’ by the General Assembly as long ago as 2001, there is no acknowledgement of the need fora harm reduction response to drug use in the draft Outcome Document. In addition, specific references to effective and life saving measures such as needle and syringe programmes, overdose prevention, and opioid substitution treatment are still under dispute. This is despite the fact that the European Union and multiple countries of Latin America and Africa have called for explicit recognition of harm reduction.
  • The draft Outcome Document reaffirms the call for “a society free of drug abuse” by 2019, a goal set by the 2009 Political Declaration. Since the 1998 UNGASS, convened under the slogan “A drug-free world, we can do it!”, drug use has in fact risen. This goal is not aspirational, it is delusional and dangerous, framing and distorting the entire policy response, prioritising the elimination of drugs above health, well-being, human rights, and the reduction of drug-related harm.
  • The draft is entirely out of sync with the realities on the ground in many countries – including the successful implementation of harm reduction programmes, a growing trend towards ending the criminalization of drug use, the exploration of regulated-market models for cannabis, the recognition of indigenous rights, as well as the social, spiritual and therapeutic uses of psychoactive plants. The reality is that globally, the outdated punitive enforcement paradigm in drug control is being challenged, reviewed, and reformed.

We call upon member states – especially those who have been shut out of the Vienna-based negotiations – to challenge the current draft of the UNGASS Outcome Document, to ensure the debate on it contents is not closed in Vienna, and to prepare statements expressing their disappointment and dissent at the UNGASS in April. We call on UN agencies, senior UN officials, academics, civil society, and networks of impacted communities to do the same. The UNGASS is a unique opportunity to take a stand and demonstrate leadership for drug policy reform, as we simply cannot continue with the same failed approach.

This statement has been made on behalf of:
[Names of signing orgs]

Decriminalise drugs to meet users’ right to good health, says UN adviser

December 9, by Damien Gayle, The Guardian

pudAll drug use should be decriminalised and possession made free from the threat of lengthy prison terms, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to health has said, criticising punitive sanctions on users.

In an open letter, Dainius Pūras throws down the gauntlet to governments with the claim that a focus on repressive drug control means they are failing to meet their treaty obligations to realise citizens’ rights to good health.

He argues that drug control policies, including punitive measures against drug users and dealers, drive many people away from health services and have led to epidemic levels of violence.

“At the root of many health-related problems faced by people who use drugs is criminalisation itself, which only drives issues and people underground and contributes to negative public and individual health outcomes,” Pūras writes.

“As a step towards the fulfilment of the right to health, drug use and possession should be decriminalised and de-penalised alongside increased investment in treatment, education and other interventions …”

The letter, dated Monday 7 December, is addressed to the executive director of the UN office on drugs and crime, Yury Fedotov, but it was mentioned to delegates at the reconvened 58th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which began on Wednesday morning in Vienna.

The commission is currently discussing the draft outcome document for the UN general assembly special session on the drug problem in April 2016, where ministers and heads of government from all member states will debate international drugs policy for the first time since 1998.

Drugs law reform groups are not hopeful of any radical outcome. But with liberal attitudes to drugs becoming more widespread across the world, including in the US, they see the session as the best opportunity in years to get their voices heard.

Pūras’s letter argues that the current framework of drug control is a major hurdle to facilitating the right to health and wellbeing. It denounces the use of the death penalty for drug offences and lethal drug law enforcement.

“Repressive responses to inter alia drug use, rural crop production and non-violent, low-level drug offences pose unnecessary risks to public health and create significant barriers to the full and effective realisation of the right to health, with a particularly devastating impact on minorities, those living in situations of rural and urban poverty, and people who use drugs,” he says.

Pointing out that drug use can lead to a range of health problems, including the spread of blood-borne diseases, Pūras calls for better access to opiates for the treatment of pain, harm reduction measures such as needle exchanges, including in prisons, and evidence-based treatment for drug addicts.

“The provision of harm reduction must not be seen as merely a policy option for states,” Pūras writes. “Rather, the provision of these programmes for people who use drugs … constitute[s] a legal obligation as part of state obligation to progressively realise the right to health.”

Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said the letter issued a challenge to many countries, including the UK, whose drugs laws were now being interpreted as in conflict with UN human rights treaty obligations.

“It does throw down the gauntlet to the UK government. We do still have a very punitive approach, we do still criminalise people who use drugs. The UK government is violating the right to health for many millions of people in this country. This is a very serious challenge and they will need to respond to this, which they won’t be able to do unless they change the law,” he said.