UNGASS 2016: what’s at stake? Interview whit Peter Sarosi

UNGASS 2016: what’s at stake? Interview whit Peter Sarosi


Interview whit Peter Sarosi *

Around and towards Ungass 2016, civil society organizations’ advocacy actions  are becoming more and more intense,  all over the world.  This a difference from previous ONU global meetings, when hopes of change were  not so doable;nowadays it looks like a new, wider perspective of  (even if not radical)  change. What makes the difference? Which factors make NGOs think of possible, positive  results of  mobilization?

There is a general optimism among civil society organisations about UNGASS. Some people even think it will be a kind of tipping point. This optimism is partly reasonable if you consider the very significant reforms in America, especially cannabis reform in the US and Urugay, and the strong criticism expressed by Latin-American governments against the international drug control system.I’ve been attending all Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meetings since 2005 and there have been hugechanges in the discourse since than. However, I think this optimism can also misguide us if we believe that the global drug control system can be changed in such a short time.We had the same positive expectations before 2009. I am skeptical about UNGASS: I don’t think we can achieve any significant reforms in 2016 (read my long article). Not because reforms are not badly needed – they are. But most governments and even more importantly, most people of the world still deny to face the reality and prefer to keep their eyes closed. Drug prohibition is a very comfortable and comforting belief, in addition, it’s a useful tool for politiciants to get some easy votes, there are still powerful lobbies behind it. After attending some Horizontal Working Party on Drugs meetings in Brussels and participating in the Civil Society Forum on Drugs, my experience is that even the EU, which is among the most progresssive players in global drug policy, is not open for changing the prohibitionist mindset. Even if some countries decriminalised drug use and even tolerate coffee shops or cannabis social clubs. A good example is how the EU reacts to new psychoactive substances: with banning them. There is no real political debate about legal regulation in Europe that has the prospect of becoming law any time soon.And if you look at other parts of the world, the situation is not becoming better. After international donors retreated from Central-Eastern Europe and Central-Asia, there is a terrible funding crisis for harm reduction and life-saving services are close down one after the other. Or look at Russia, with its increasingly repressive system, or Asia, where hundreds of thousands of people are still detained in bootcamps. I don’t think the same governments that torture and execute people in the name of drug control would support even the slightest reform in the global level. Unfortunately my skepticism is justified by the firts drafts of the so-called outcome document of the UNGASS, which is now being prepared by governments, and it has a very weak language. So we have a long way to go – UNGASS 2016 will not be a tipping point. But civil society is stronger and stronger and this is a positive development. What is really important is to keep in mind that reform is not coming from the UN – reform is driven by local and national politics. The UN as a system is not flexible at all, it reacts very slowly to national level changes. Yes, we need to keep the reform of the UN system on the agenda but in the future I would like to see more investments into national and local advocacy as well.

Global drug policy and human rightsrespect is a crucial  issue in NGOs and drug policy reform activism perspective. From death penalty to health care, a wide range of social and human rights are threatened because of current global drug policy. Can you describe  the most important human right drug  related issues in Eastern Europe? Which is, in your opinion, the influence of Russia and its prohibitionist approach at international level?

The human rights impacts of the war on drugs (watch our video about the subject!) is still not evaluated in the global level, even though there were significant developments, such as the discussion at the Human Rights Council last year. Civil society organisation now demand a systematic and regular global review of these impacts. In our part of Europe, people who use drugs face a systemic violation of their human rights, such as their right to life, right to privacy, right to health and right to freedom from torture, cruel treatment and discrimination, among others. For example, when people are deined access to life-saving treatment such as opiate substitution treatment (OST, it is still banned in Russia for example), is a violation of their right to life. It is not an abstraction – it really means life and death, the example is the Crimea, where many people died after the Russian occuppiers blocked access to OST programs. When the largest needle and syringe program in Hungary was shut down, our obmudsman for civil rights agreed with our complaint and stated that it is a violation of the right to health of people who use drugs – but it also violates the right of non-drug users to a healthy environment. This is very important because we have to realise that bad drug policies do not only hurt drug users but they hurt the whole community. Harm reduction benefits all!

Can you make an example of recent / current best practice in advocacy mobilization in your country and in Eastern Europe? Do you think that communication, media and social media have played / play a crucial role?

Last year we launched an international campaign in 8 European cities, the Room for Change campaign. Ittargeted those people whose lives are affected by street drug use, either because they have a relative who uses drugs or because they live in a neighborhood where many people inject drugs. In each of the eight cities, there are huge problems related to injecting drug use: HIV and hepatitis infections, overdose deaths, drug litter and nuisance. We created a campaign website with plenty of multimedia contents, videos, photos and texts on what are the alternatives of ineffective repressive drug policies in the urban level. I think it is really important to educate local communities about the benefits of an integrated care system that includes prevention, treatment, harm reduction and smart policing. We have to take people’s concerns seriously and address them. Luckily we have many online tools to engage with people, such as video sharing for example. My NGO, the Rights Reporter Foundation has produced hundreds of short videos on drug policy reform and harm reduction, now we also train other activists to use videos as an advocacy tool and created a global network of video activists.

Also from the point of view of CSF, how  do you evaluate  the role that Europe is playing in the global drug  policy context and in Ungass 2016 process?

As I mentioned before, I am a bit disappointed by the performance of Europe. But of course it is not surprising in a continent that has been hit by the financial crisis and has become increasingly conservative on many social issues, including migration. This is an age of anxiety in Europe and it is not good for drug policy reform. In the 90s Europe had the leadership in progressive drug policies but now America took over this role. The coffee shop system in the Netherlands is now rather outdated compared to some cannabis regulation schemes in the US. Unfortunatelly the EU is not even strong enough to implement its own drug strategy in its member states. For example did the EU prevent my country, Hungary to close down the two largest needle and syringe programs in 2014? No. The Hungarian government adopted a national drug strategy that aims to create a drug-free society. Even if it was against all EU standards. So if the EU drug strategy has so little impact in member states what can we expect from a UN document?


To date, the Zero Draft document seems not to accept  nor adopt NGOs proposals and suggestions on human rights and on civil society participation, including the ones in European CSF’s recent statement. What is your opinion and do you think that the game is over or is there still  time and opportunity to influence  the final resolution?

I don’t think there will be significant changes in the text. The only chance is that some like-minded countries stand up and produce their own statement on drug policy, including strong words on harm reduction, the abolition of death penalty and the reform of the criminal justice system. I think it is time to break the so called Vienna consensus (we even made a movie about this issue), the belief that there is a full consensus behind the idea that all non-scientific and non-medical use of drugs is bad.

Considering all the factors influencing  Ungass, in your opinion  which could be a “satisfying” outcome of Ungass 2016 in a NGOs perspective?

A strong document that supports harm reduction and human rights would be welcome. Unfortunately it is an unlikely outcome. However, UNGASS is an excellent opportunity to raise public awareness on the negative consequences of punitive drug policies and the benefits of alternatives. I myself submitted my application to be a speaker at the UNGASS. A few weeks ago we launched a poster contest to highlihgt global drug policy issues before the UNGASS, we are planning to exhibit the best posters in New York. I know many other NGOs are planning to organise side events and other activities. So if civil society can make a big noise and make its voice heard that is already a big achievement.

*Hungarian media&video activist, researcher,  director of  Rights Reporter Foundation (http://www.rightsreporter.net/) and editor of DrugReporter (http://drogriporter.hu/) ; he is a member of European  Civil Society Forum on Drugs.


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