As government delegates and civil society organizations from all over the world gathered at the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in New York last month, many hoped for a sober reflection of the world drug problem and an honest assessment of what has not worked over the years. Unfortunately, however, this hope was not entirely met.
The drug problem and its related “harms” transcend borders and affect people across Africa and the world as a whole. Hence, international cooperation is believed to be the way towards an integrated and balanced strategy, and the United Nations places a lot of emphasis and energy into the achievement of a “global consensus”.
The Special Session in New York saw more 20 African countries (Algeria, Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia) participate in this very important discussion. These countries had the opportunity to make their statements and contributed to the debate on the world drug problem.
Right from the very onset, the UNGASS preparations in the region did not begin in a spirit of “consensus”. In various speeches throughout the debates, government representatives stood up and contradicted one another on the core premises of drug control. These contradictions were not surprising because, before UNGASS, Africa’s engagement in the global discussions was very low – pointing to a broader issue about the engagement of African governments in the international drug policy debates in Vienna, where all the UNGASS preparations took place. A large number of African countries have no permanent diplomatic presence in Vienna, and hence, they were largely absent and unaware of the discussions being held there. Instead, a small group of African ambassadors has dominated proceedings on behalf of the ‘Africa Group’.
Countries such as Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal and Cape Verde felt that punitive drug policies have not worked, hence the need to move towards more humane and evidence-based policies. These few voices articulated calls for people who use drugs to have access to life-saving harm reduction programs. On the other hand, there were those who sought to strengthen the status quo ‘zero tolerance’ approach: for example, Egypt, Algeria and South Africa. This divide was best demonstrated in the confusion and contradictions between the UNGASS submissions from the Africa Group in Vienna versus the Africa Union in Addis Ababa.
For those supporting harm reduction responses, reducing the transmission of HIV and hepatitis would be one of the main benefits of such an approach. This is a particularly a big issue for Africa, where people who use drugs are widely criminalized and where there are very few harm reduction programmes (such as providing sterile needles and syringes or opiate substitution therapy) which have been proven to prevent HIV transmission.
As the debates ensued, the few progressive African governments called for Member States to embrace dignity, humanity, science, medicine and evidence-based treatment. The permanent representative of the Republic of Cape Verde, Fernando Wahnon Ferreira, called for the UNGASS to ensure that all governments respect the fundamental right to health, which is a great step in the right direction.
It was refreshing to hear relatively progressive voices from the continent, assessing the real situation and calling for a rethinking of our drug laws. On the issue of decriminalization, some felt that the continent is not ready in terms of infrastructure and resources to handle this approach while others believed that we need to commit our existing resources into the health sector to address this problem instead. Outside of Africa, a number of prominent reformist voices called for the UNGASS to acknowledge that the old methods have not worked.
Several countries were also gravely concerned at the inadequate access to controlled medicines for palliative care, pain relief, and drug treatment. Ghana estimated that over 90% of their cancer and AIDS patients cannot be treated adequately with the current levels of morphine supply – a similar picture across the region. They called for a partnership between civil society organizations and Member States within the region to integrate effective pain relief and palliative care into public health systems.
What is the way forward for Africa regarding drug policy reforms?
While we might not see radical changes like decriminalization of drug use taking place in many African countries, there is hope for a continued shift away from punitive approaches and towards approaches founded on public health and human rights. To maintain this momentum, it is necessary for the continent as a whole to use the Africa Union platform to discuss openly the different approaches that will be of benefit to our citizens. Some African governments were completely unaware of the UNGASS discussions being held, so we must call on our governments to be more proactive on these important issues. This also requires civil society engagement and partnership at the national level.
In my opinion, I see reform taking place but at a slow pace, beginning with some countries such as Ghana, Tanzania, and Senegal championing the agenda and rupturing the previously-held consensus perpetuated by a small number of vocal and regressive African countries in Vienna, such as Egypt and South Africa.
To build a new paradigm in Africa, it calls for consultation, inclusiveness, and communication – including the meaningful participation of people who are most affected by these policies.
Most delegates and speakers at UNGASS recognised that the supposed international “consensus” in favour of drug prohibition is currently crumbling – and one wonders if it can survive the next UN high-level meeting on this issue, scheduled for 2019. The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed and, despite the best efforts of the obstructionists in Africa and elsewhere, the tide is turning strongly in favor of evidence-based and humane approaches to drug policy reform: Support Don’t Punish!!Africa may not be leading this drive for reform, but it has the potential to play an important role as we look forward.
IDPC Consultant for Africa