Do we really want a Russian UN Drug Czar?

Russia has one of the worst records on drug policy and human rights
Friday, July 9, 2010

According to the Transform blog, it has been confirmed that the Russian diplomat Yuri V. Fedotov has been appointed as the new Executive Director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). What will be the implications? Russia has one of the worst records on drug policy and human rights: it ignores scientific evidence on effective HIV prevention among drug users and its punitive drug laws push drug users to the margins of society. Afghan opium poppy farmers could suffer from this appointment as well. The Russians hold them responsible for the 30,000 drug deaths in Russia every year.

An Executive Director is supposed to be independent and not in the service of any country. However, Fedatov is a 40-year career diplomat – so we should probably not be under any illusions about his independence or loyalties. Given the recent diplomatic offensive of Russia in favour of spraying the poppy fields in Afghanistan, this appointment may be considered as a victory in Russian Federation's drive for a hard line in the region.

fedotov_noIn the past years NATO troops, unwilling to alienate local farmers, did not destroy poppy fields in territories taken from the Taliban; instead the paid farmers to do it themselves . According to Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), the unwillingnes to destroy the opium fields by NATO and Western powers runs "counter to the UN resolution on the obligation of all the countries to destroy plantations with narcotics-containing crops".

Russian top officials have described the situation in Afghanistan as “narco-aggression” against Russia and a new "opium war." Russia is blaming the 30,000 drug users – aged 28 on average – that die in Russia each year on the Afghan farmers and NATO's policies, instead of their own abysmal drug policy.

An article in the Lancet published just this week (Russian injected drug use soars in face of political inertia) provides a useful summary overview of the disastrous drug policy in Russia:

“According to WHO and UNAIDS, Russia has one of the world's most serious injection drug-use epidemics, which in turn is fuelling an explosion in HIV/AIDS incidence. Research by HIV/AIDS monitors in Russia estimate that there are up to 2 million injecting drug users in Russia, 60-70% of whom have HIV-related illnesses. Up to two-thirds of new HIV cases in Russia are linked with injected drug use, and according to UNAIDS there are an estimated 1 million people with HIV in Russia. HIV prevalence in Russia has doubled since 2001. The Russian authorities have come in for fierce international criticism over their policy towards the treatment of drug addiction, which relies almost exclusively on the promotion of abstinence. Opiate-substitution therapy, such as providing methadone, or buprenorphine, which is standard practice in much of the rest of the world, is banned by law, and promotion of its use is punishable by a jail sentence. Some Russian doctors who have advocated methadone use for drug users in harm-reduction programmes say they have subsequently faced harassment.”

This is the country that pretends to lead the world on drug control. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) started a campaign against the nomination on their Drug Reporter site. There you can sign a letter to Ban Ki Moon against the nomination.

Although it seems unlikely that Fedatov could seriously promote a hard line Russian approach on demand reduction within the UNODC, the new Executive Director might stall the slow progress made over the past few years. His appointment is a direct challenge to the many member states active within the UN who have adopted pragmatic harm reduction positions.

Things may be worse in the area of supply reduction, in particular for the Afghan opium farmers. Russia seems to be determined to stamp out opium cultivation with whatever means possible. One of this means is Mr. Fedotov. Another one might be a biological control agent based on the plant pathogenic fungus Dendryphion papaveraceae. The history of the development of the fungus is described by TNI in Vicious Circle - The Chemical and Biological "War on Drugs".

The fungus has been developed by the Institute of Genetics in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with financial support from the UNDCP – the forerunner of the UNODC. Under international pressure the UNODC had to retreat from the programme and did not endorse its implementation. It is not clear who can decide on the use of the fungus right now.

Now that the Obama administration is moving away from the 'war on drugs' and is gradually giving up its resistance against harm reduction, it seems that the Russian Federation is set to replace the United States as the main global drug warrior. With a Russian career diplomat heading the "independent" UN drug control machinery.