African Union agrees: “Support. Don’t punish”

Earlier in October, the African Union (AU) hosted the 5th Conference of Ministers of Drug Control (CAMDC5) at its impressive headquarters in Addis Ababa. IDPC was present throughout the four-day meeting, during which Member States adopted and approved some important new documents for the region: the “AU Plan of Action on Drug Control for 2013 to 2017”, the “Continental Minimum Standards for Treatment of Drug Dependence”, and a “African Common Position on Access to Pain Management Drugs”. In advance of the meeting, IDPC released a targeted Advocacy Note that contained several practical recommendations, many of which were reflected in the final documents from the meeting.

Overall, the new Plan of Action is a well-balanced, well-considered document. It focuses on four “priority areas”: management and oversight; evidence-based health and social services for people who use drugs; countering drug trafficking and security threats; and capacity building and research. Through a detailed “Implementation Matrix”, the Plan commits Member States to – among other things – conduct baseline studies on drug use, deliver policy advocacy campaigns, implement the “comprehensive package on HIV prevention, treatment and care” for people who inject drugs, and provide alternatives to incarceration.

The tone for the meeting was set by the opening speech at the three-day ‘Expert Segment’, in which the Egyptian chairperson reminded participants (who were predominantly law enforcement officials) that “public health is our objective”. Alan Doss (Senior Political Advisor for the Kofi Annan Foundation) then announced plans for a new West Africa Drug Policy Commission to address some of the specific issues being experienced in this region.

When I was invited to present IDPC's observations, I focused on the need for the legal and policy distinctions that need to be made between high-level drug traffickers and people who use drugs. For the latter, we have been advocating for one approach: “Support. Don’t Punish”. We also promoted the need for the AU Plan of Action to include indicators to measure progress looking at drug availability, use and prices, treatment uptake, drug-related deaths, HIV transmission, and the negative consequences of drug policies, as well as standard measures such as drug seizures and arrests.

Although the meeting included good presentations from Joanne Csete (Global Drug Policy Programme), Reychad Abdool and Stefano Berterame (UNODC), and a delegation from Tanzania, we were somewhat disappointed by the lack of real debate among the participants about the contents of the draft documents. However, it is very positive that the crucial references to “comprehensive, accessible, evidence-informed, ethical and human rights based” services were retained. (The US Government representative questioned references to “harm reduction”, but these were retained and clarified with a footnote linking to the UN guidance!)

The subsequent day was filled by the ‘Ministerial Segment’ of the meeting, at which around 30 AU Member States were represented. IDPC, HRI and INPUD supported the attendance of a number of civil society observers from the region – including representatives from the Kenyan Network of People who Use Drugs and the Ugandan Harm Reduction Network. The session was opened with a speech from Raymond Yans (President of the International Narcotics Control Board), who focused mainly on the need to improve access to effective pain relief. This was followed by an amazing speech from Dr Jean Pierre Onvehoun – the AU Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology. He reiterated that drug use is a public health issue, and that law enforcement efforts should focus on high-level organised criminals rather than drug users. Advocating for the balanced approach contained within the Plan of Action, Dr Onvehoun reminded the participants that some African countries “have been quietly implementing evidence-based programs that deal with the harms of drug use… the war on drugs is shifting fronts”.

As with the three-day Expert Segment that preceded it, there was a marked shortage of hearty debate in the Ministerial Segment (so much so that the two-day agenda was actually completed in just one day!). The meeting was comprised of a large number of deputy or junior officials filling in for their Ministers, possibly indicating a lack of priority being given to these issues. To remedy this, commitments were made to organise an AU special session on drugs so that African heads-of-state can discuss the issues in detail in 2013 or 2014. Nonetheless, the Ministerial Segment closed with the formal adoption of the documents presented, instating these as official AU resources.

The AU Plan of Action comes at a time when other regions – such as Latin America – are acknowledging that the “war on drugs” has failed in its stated objectives. The African Union now has a great opportunity to avoid the mistakes that others have made, and to approach the complex of issue of drugs in a better, more effective way. It is now crucial that the AU Commission and Member States use these documents effectively over the coming years, and IDPC will continue to work closely with the Commission to support this important work.

Jamie Bridge, IDPC Senior Policy and Operations Manager

For more information, please visit the IDPC website.