INCB out of step with the United Nations

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

ghodse-annanThe United Nations should overhaul the operations of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the quasi judicial body that monitors states’ implementation of their obligations under the UN drug conventions. The Board ignores UN policies and conventions which recognize the need to provide humane treatment to people addicted to injection drugs, according to a recent commentary in medical journal The Lancet.

In the commentary, Joanne Csete of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and Daniel Wolfe of the Open Society Institute's International Harm Reduction Development Program, write that the INCB remains out of step with the rest of the UN on HIV/AIDS and harm reduction. The Board ignores UN policies and conventions which recognize the need to provide humane treatment to people addicted to injection drugs, they say. The body meets in secret and does not release minutes of its meetings or discuss the deliberations that went into its decisions.

"The INCB's mandate is to monitor compliance by national governments with the UN drug conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988, and to help ensure that controlled substances, such as methadone or buprenorphine, are available for medical and scientific purposes," they write. "Although the INCB's annual reports repeatedly note that injection drug use is driving severe HIV epidemics, the board has failed to criticise countries such as Russia where methadone or buprenorphine are illegal, or to express concern about the many other places where the medications are effectively unavailable for treatment of drug dependence. Nor has the board spoken out about the many instances where addiction treatment — required under the UN conventions — is incarceration by another name, including forced labour, prolonged institutionalisation, and unproven and punitive procedures, such as partial lobotomy or flogging."

The authors call to reconsider the role and purpose of the INCB: "The INCB is a relic of time when criminal law and crackdowns were deemed sufficient to deal with the public-health challenge of illicit drug use. In 2008, an ideal way for the UN to show that drug policy needs another look in the era of HIV would be for the UN Secretary General to commission an independent assessment of the activities of the INCB. The UN should also require that the deliberations of the INCB, which are held in secret, be opened to member states and civil society. Such measures would contribute to making 2008 a milestone of real global progress toward dealing with the health consequences of drug dependence."

One of the INCB’s targets has been Insite, Vancouver's safe injection facility. Another has been Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for AIDS in Africa, who was publicly reprimanded by the Board when he praised the prevention work done by Insite. Lewis supports the call for an independent assessment of the INCB: "It's way beyond time to take a very hard look at the Narcotics Control Board. They are so out of date they are fundamentally working in the 19th century around these issues," Lewis said in an interview with the Canadian Press. "There's every reason to believe that they are completely out of touch with the priorities of health."

Lewis fears that the INCB’s positions will be used to appeal the recent British Columbia Supreme Court ruling that struck down laws prohibiting possession of drugs by those seeking help at the supervised injection site Insite. Canada Health Minister Tony Clement said the government will appeal the ruling. Lewis said, government lawyers will "be sure to be quoting the International Narcotics Control Board."

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