Narcotic Drugs: IFRC perspective

Published: 11 March 2008

Statement by Christopher Lamb, Special Adviser, in the general debate at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, in Vienna

Thank you for giving the floor to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. As the Commission knows, both the International Federation and its world-wide network of 186 member Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies take this debate very seriously indeed.

Our concerns have accelerated in recent years as the issue of substance abuse has itself accelerated as a public health concern.

We spoke in the United Nations General Assembly late last year on the public health dimensions of the misuse and abuse of drugs and other substances.

In that statement, we said how helpful we had found the Secretary-General’s Report to the General Assembly on the issues, but also noted our regret that a relatively small number of Member States and Observers had tackled those public health and their associated rights and dignity dimensions.

This is a particularly important issue for the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, for it is vital that all those committed to addressing the scourge of drug abuse and misuse recognise that humanitarian consequences are the reason for the actions we are discussing.

Now, here at the Commission, we are pleased to note from the Executive Director’s report in E/CN.7/2008/7 that reporting by Member States shows an upturn in awareness and interest in addressing HIV among drug users, in particular injecting drug users.

Work towards the establishment of legal, policy and institutional frameworks, also noted in the report, is of special significance for us and meets one of the key points brought forward by National Societies when they sat together with States at the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in November 2007.

That Conference should be well-known to participants in this Commission session, but it is still worth noting that the Conference addressed the humanitarian consequences of four major humanitarian challenges facing the world today.

The four selected – and governments and National Societies agreed with the selection – were environmental hazards including climate change, international migration, violence in urban settings and emerging and re-emerging diseases and other public health challenges.

This meant that issues relating to this Commission’s agenda were discussed within two of the four themes of the Conference.

In addition, a side event was hosted by the Italian Red Cross Society and the IFRC to make possible a wider debate on certain drug policy issues.

These thematic debates linked to debate on an agenda item which led to the adoption by consensus of a resolution clarifying the auxiliary role of National Societies.

The importance of this issue cannot be overstated, for National Societies hold this responsibility as a result of legislation or its equivalent everywhere in the world, and through it manage a relationship with public authorities at national, district and local level of particular importance to drugs-related issues in the fields of public health and some of the situations described in our International Conference thematic paper on Violence in urban settings.

I will not traverse those documents today, but I did want to record for the Commission the way our work increasingly intersects with that of UNODC and both the Commissions it services.

We are very glad to be able to maintain a strong dialogue with UNODC, from Mr Costa through all his staff, and will look for ways to strengthen the relationship in the future.

This is doubly important as UNODC moves into the period which will mark ten years since the UN General Assembly Special Session on Narcotic Drugs.

I will now outline some points which are within our priority list, following debate in 2007 of the issues in the IFRC’s Health and Community Services Commission and its Governing Board.

• We have conducted a survey of National Societies in our Federation to come to an understanding of the work they have done to implement the Federation’s harm reduction guidelines.
o We will be taking steps significantly to enhance the place of harm reduction from substance abuse in the work of National Societies in actions in health care and support, disease prevention and, particularly, disaster risk reduction. With special reference to Youth.

• We have decided to link our National Societies to capital-based delegates representing their countries at this Commission. This will improve opportunities for taking reality of the Commission’s business quickly to the communities with which our National Societies live.

• We will emphasise the importance of the messages contained in our key publication, “Spreading the Light of Science”. This publication is available in the Web at, and has been described widely as an essential ingredient in any serious work to combat the humanitarian consequences of injecting drug use.

These points came forward from a paper, entitled a “Scoping Paper” which was prepared for the IFRC’s Health and Community Services Commission in April 2007. It was prepared by Lady Jocelyn Keith, who led our delegation here last year and included in her research discussions with leaders of the debates in Vienna including Mr Antonio Maria Costa and officials other relevant organisations, including INCB.

The Scoping Paper includes reference to the tenth anniversary of UNGASS, and the work which will be stimulated world-wide by the anniversary.

The IFRC and our worldwide membership look forward to opportunities to complement that work, each Society working within the context of its own country but all striving to achieve the objectives set in the declaration adopted by the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

In doing so, we expect that National Societies will be welcomed to dialogue by their governments, consistent with the language which governments and National Societies adopted, specifically their commitment to work together to reduce the vulnerability of youth to drugs and crime.

A similar commitment aims to ensure that national health systems and plans are strengthened by the inclusion of the empowerment of volunteers and affected groups so that programming and its implementation reaches all affected and vulnerable populations, including people living with HIV and drug users.

In the same spirit, the IFRC is producing a study on the Red Cross Red Crescent role with respect to health in prisons which is highly relevant to the objectives of this Commission. I expect we will be in a position to say more on this subject later in the year, though, at the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

On our part, all our work is done within the letter and the spirit of the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Its purpose is to alleviate the plight of the most vulnerable, and service their needs. That is our business, our niche – protection for the most vulnerable, especially when they face massive humanitarian disaster.

Misused and abused drugs pose a massive humanitarian challenge, and that is why we are so clear about the priority we attach to it. Our next hope is that by working closely with partners in government, and by sharing knowledge around the world and at meetings like this one, we will all be in a stronger position to offer solutions and meet challenges.

Our National Societies are also working closely with partners in civil society, and we pay tribute here to the very many NGOs which follow the work of the Commission and bring it the benefits of their expertise. In our case, NGO partners are usually found at the national or local level, for it is at that level that we do our most important work.

We will continue to use available opportunities for sharing our knowledge, both among our National Societies and with others.

Allow me, in this context, to pay a special tribute to the work of the Italian and Spanish Red Cross Societies for their energy in this sense. They have just co-sponsored a conference attended by about 60 National Societies in Barcelona where, with the support of the Senlis Council, they have discussed the best ways of assisting National Societies develop appropriate drug policy objectives.

The National Societies present have adopted a declaration on humanitarian drug policy in which they emphasise the importance of public health measures as key elements in effective drug policy.

They look forward to working with their governments for the development of humanitarian drug policy for the benefit of their own people and as a contribution to the reduction of human suffering and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

We will ensure that the Declaration is brought to the attention of our Health and Community Services Commission, where it will be considered in the spirit of prioritisation for drug policy questions which I have already mentioned in this statement.

We know that there are important actions to be taken at other levels – and one of our most important tasks is to translate our street knowledge into a vocabulary which is useful at the level of international organisations as well as governmental policy-making.

We anticipate taking this task further in 2008, and look forward to bringing ideas back to the Commission next year, as well as in dialogue in capitals.