Andrey Rylkov Foundation
for Health and Social Justice

UN Committee Gives Russian Authorities 18 Months to Change Punitive Drug Policy Approaches

Text: Nikita Sologub

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has recommended that Russia change its punitive policy approach within 18 months and consider decriminalizing drugs for personal consumption.

Since 2010, the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice (a foreign agent according to the Russian Ministry of Justice) has attempted to make Russian drug policy more humane by addressing the UN Committee. At that time, the Foundation submitted its first Shadow Report on behalf of the Public Mechanism for Monitoring Drug Policy Reform in Russia. The report specified that Russia was not implementing Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which Russia had ratified) in terms of ensuring access to drug treatment and HIV prevention, treatment and care for people who inject drugs. Paragraph 1 of this Article says: “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. “

Having reviewed the Report, the Committee adopted its conclusions addressing the Russian Government. In those conclusions, it requested that Russia support internationally acknowledged measures to prevent HIV among injecting drug users for example by legalizing opioid substitution therapy and supporting needle exchange and overdose prevention programs.  Russia ignored these recommendations, even as the number of people living with HIV in Russia almost doubled.

Having realized that the government‘s position would not change, the Foundation prepared another report. Its authors pointed at the fact that Russian authorities violated Articles 3 and 2 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which they had ratified; these articles prohibit discrimination and proclaim equal opportunities for all citizens of the Parties to the Covenant. Specifically, the report said that as a result of measures taken by the authorities against civil society organizations, the HIV epidemic continued to grow in Russia while injecting drug users remained at risk. In response, the Committee provided a set of recommendations, dividing them into two points.

In the first point, the Committee expressed its concern about the high rates of drug use in Russia and about Russia‘s exclusive focus on punitive approaches to tackling this issue. According to the UN, this results in a growing number of people incarcerated for drug-related offences while drug users increasingly abstain from contacting health services. This situation is made worse due to the lack of harm reduction programs, the ban on opioid substitution therapy and, as a result, widespread prevalence of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and Tuberculosis among drug users.

In the second point, the Committee specified that Russia must take the following measures to address those issues:

— Pay more attention to combating drug trafficking rather than individual drug users and consider decriminalizing drug possession for personal consumption;

— Organize programs to increase awareness of health risks that may result from drug use;

— Consider decriminalizing drug users, including ensuring their access to healthcare programs;

— Provide drug dependent persons with necessary health services, psychological support and rehabilitation, including by legalizing opioid substitution therapy which is an effective treatment method;

— Support harm reduction programs such as needle and syringe exchange services, including providing access to these programs in the penitentiary system to address Tuberculosis among prisoners, and support non-commercial organizations implementing such programs;

— Address the spread of HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Hepatitis C more effectively, including by ensuring universal access to antiretroviral therapy;

In addition to these drug policy recommendations, the Committee has responded to the shadow reports submitted by other organizations, for example, the LGBT-Initiative group “Stimul” and the Russian movement of activists and advocates for sex workers’ rights ‘Silver Rose’. Specifically, the Committee noted the lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in Russia; it recommended taking measures to prevent discrimination of LGBT representatives and expressed its concern about the barriers faced by sex workers when accessing health services when they are discriminated against based on their professional activities.

According to the accepted procedure, a Party to the Covenant must take measures based on the Committee‘s recommendations within 18 months. According to Mikhail Golichenko, Senior Policy Analyst on Human Rights at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Russian Constitution specifies that the authorities cannot ignore those recommendations. “On the other hand, Russia may react as it wishes; for example, it may begin convincing everyone again that it has its own way of dealing with these issues. The only thing the Committee can do to help implement those recommendations is to maintain a constructive dialogue. Same as a doctor who continues treating someone with a mental disorder, the international bodies will continue their dialogue with Russia and other countries ignoring civilized norms,“ he says.

According to Mr. Golichenko, the Committee had issued similar recommendations on harm reduction to many countries, including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Poland, Mauritius, Ukraine, Sweden and Georgia. All of them have implemented these recommendations, at least to some degree. As for considering decriminalization, so far the Committee has recommended that to only one country: the Philippines. That country‘s new president, Mr. Duterte, is notorious for mass killings that he justifies by the need to fight drug trafficking.

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