Name: Aram Barra
Aram Barra, an International Studies Bachelor who is currently serving as Projects Director at Espolea an organization by and for young people working in Latin America and as Board Member of Youth RISE, a global network of young people working on harm reduction shares his idea with us on Young people who use drugs and their meaningful participation in the UN system
A bit over one year ago, during the launch of the 2011 Word Drug Report at the UN Headquarters in New York, Ban Ki-moon said: “Drug-dependent people should not be treated with discrimination; they should be treated by medical experts and counsellors. Drug addiction is a disease, not a crime”. Nevertheless, countries around the world continue to criminalize people who use drugs. Some countries even elevate risks to health to the point of applying death penalty punishments for holding scarce grams of any illegal drug. It doesn't matter how much we ignore the fact that it happens, wide violations of human rights of people who use drugs continues to be a reality.
The issue is enormous and complex, and thus there’s no easy solution. However, for the past couple of years an increasing number of organizations and groups of young people working at different levels have attempted to change the status quo. If 60 years of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and 40 years of a war on drugs have not impeded young people to experiment and use drugs, one can only question: Are we doing something wrong? If current policies have only served to deter young people from accessing health services, counseling and life-saving harm reduction and overdose prevention programs, are we indeed listening to the words of the UN Secretary General? Are our drug policies really treating “drug addiction” as “a disease, not a crime”?
Following the innovative introduction of young people's meaningful participation in the debates, decisions and programs that affect our lives -- led by UNAIDS and more recently the United Nation Population Fund -- the UN agency charged with drug control, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), decided to create a so-called 'Youth Initiative'. The process is and continues to be opaque to say the least. A group of young people from around the world were flown into Vienna, Austria, to partake in the annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2012.
As is so common in drug policy, rather than drawing on a diversity of views for an honest debate, engaged stakeholders were fractured to work at cross-purposes. Little did it matter to the 'Youth Initiative' of UNODC that other networks, organizations and young people have in fact worked to open up spaces to participate in the meeting for young people for several years. Young people who have been active in these fora have followed debates closely, reported on annual outcomes and are in direct communication with their ambassadors to better understand the impacts that current drug policies have on young people. Nevertheless, existing youth groups were never included in the new initiative. In fact they were blocked-out of "closed-door meetings" held at the annual Commission. The Initiative came out of these meetings with a document titled, 'Youth Discussion Guide: Thematic Overviews, Activities, Links' that states that "people who use drugs are not able to be responsible persons in their communities or become successful mentors to young people." This suggests that there is nothing we can learn from those young people that have experienced the impacts of drug policies first-hand.
During that CND meeting, a young person was offered to speak at the forum for the first time in history. Countries and UNODC staff were willing, for once, to listen to a young person's voice. The blog reporting on it bluntly called his speech "Youth from all over the world make their statement at the 55th Commission on Narcotic Drugs" even though, as mentioned before, the whole process has been all but representative of 'youth from all around the world'.
The Initiative was recently given a second opportunity to speak, this time before the Thematic Debate on "Drugs and Crime as a Threat to Development" at the General Assembly last June. There, the young speaker assured "Most of our families are broken families, and most of the youth are orphans, which is why drug abuse has increased". The speaker added, "Young people are ignorant. Ignorance has also permitted this epidemic to spread and has limited our vision to be disseminated under the guidance of ideology."
Apart from the evident lack of understanding of what representation and meaningful participation means to this whole process, one can only wonder: How many decisions are made in a similar fashion? How much longer do most affected and at risk youth need to wait to have a say on the decisions that affect our lives? Can stigmatizing discourse -- even if said by a young person -- really be the path forward to responding to the real needs of young people who use drugs?
As Simone Weil once said, "The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply mean being able to say, What are you going through?" If the ‘Youth Initiative’, as a project of the UN family, really stands for the ideals of defending human rights and the well-being of people all around the world, it would, one would assume, at least listen to the voices of those who it claims to represent. We hope to be able to contribute to this in the near future in an organized manner. But there are things to do as individuals as well. If we really care for our neighbors, we could start by questioning our current policies and wonder how we can better them.
In this edition of ’10 days of activism’ I want to ask you to think about your country’s drug policy. I want to invite you to reflect on their impacts and ask those who are most affected by them, how can we better them? Whatever answer you come up with should attempt to stay away from paternalistic and vacuous action. After all, meaningful participation -regardless of your use of drugs- is based on the right we all have to decide how we want to live our lives and the principles of human rights.