Thursday, July 08, 2010

A giant leap backwards as Ban Ki Moon appoints career Russian diplomat as new head of UNODC

 It has been confirmed today that UN Sectretary General Ban Ki Moon has appointed the Russian diplomat Yuri V. Fedotov as the new Executive Director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. the implications of this move are discussed below. (update 09.07.10 official confirmation here)

Who is Yuri V. Fedotov? 

Yuri V. Fedotov

Like previous appointments to the Exec Director of the UNODC we know relatively little about Fedotov. He is currently Russia's ambassador to the United Kingdom, and his Wikipedia page (usual wikipedia caveats apply) states that:

'Fedotov graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1971' and 'has held many foreign service positions to the UN and at Russian embassies in Algeria and India. In 2002 he was appointed the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and held this post until 2005.'

Whilst the UNODC appointment is nominally independent of National Government (even though nominations are made by National Governments) Fedotov is a 40-year career Russian diplomat – so we should probably not be under any illusions about his independence or loyalties.

Why should we be concerned?

Quite aside from Fedotov’s personal qualities, as the TransNational Institute (TNI) noted earlier in the week the appointment puts Russia in a ‘far more influential position to influence the international war on drugs. And that is a very bad message....Russian drug policy is one of, if not the most horrible in the world’

This is a point that needs to be stressed: Russia has a quite appalling track record on drug policy – particularly around injecting drug use. A Lancet piece published just this week (Russian injected drug use soars in face of political inertia) provides a useful summary overview of some of the key problems. It makes grim reading:

“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 has not merely remained a domestic issue. Russia has aggressively promoted these policies in the UN arena, including within the UNODC, INCB and CND. As TNI point out:

“Despite the country’s abysmal record on HIV prevention and injecting drug use, Russia believes it should teach the rest of the word lessons on drug policy. At the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), Russia has consistently attempted to block any political progress on harm reduction for HIV prevention relating to injecting drug use. At the 2010 CND session the Russian delegation refused to acknowledge previous resolutions adopted by consensus at the Human Rights Council and ECOSOC and a decision of the UNAIDS PCB on the issue.

At the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the recently deceased Russian delegate Tatyana Dmitrieva has parroted the misstatements of fact made by the Russian government, and ―despite a requirement for independence― joined Russian government officials in public denouncements of methadone notwithstanding the obligation under international law to ensure adequate supply of licit controlled substances for treatment purposes.

Needle and syringe exchange programmes in Russia are implemented solely by NGOs through international aid. Last year the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria had to continue emergency funding to harm reduction programmes when Russia reneged on a previous agreement to continue funding once the Global Fund grant had expired. The Russian government has actually cut funding over the past few years to needle and syringe programs”

Update 15.07.10 : please view this new video produced by the BMJ - which graphically illustrates some of the problems here. See also this collection of articles in the newly published BMJ special edition to coincide with the up coming AIDS 2010 conference in Vienna.


TNI have also highlighted the concerns around Russia’s backward thinking on supply side controls and human rights:

“With regard to production and trafficking, Russia has recently been pressing hard for NATO intervention in Afghanistan against suspected drug traffickers, and for the forced aerial eradication of opium poppy. Both are disastrous policies intended to divert attention from Russia’s drug problems at home. They are utterly at odds with the UN’s commitment to a ‘balanced approach’ to supply and demand reduction as well as being contrary to human rights standards.

Human rights must be at the centre of drug control policies. Russia’s domestic human rights record is well known. Internationally, it has consistently sought to block human rights language in resolutions at the CND. In 2010 the Russian Delegation declared that fighting AIDS “is not linked to human rights”, contradicting the 2001 and 2006 General Assembly political declarations and the World Summit Outcome, not to mention decades of experience in fighting the pandemic. At the Human Rights Council, Russia has recently both attempted to block references to most at risk populations in a resolution on human rights and HIV/AIDS, and has led the charge in undermining human rights norms through the concept of “traditional values”, stigmatising men who have sex with men, drug users, sex workers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and seeks to undermine their basic rights.”

For more discussion on the human rights issues raise by this apointment take a look at the comment piece by Damon Barrett (from IHRA) that ran on the Gurdian's CiF blogs last week (New UN drugs tsar must be a leader on human rights),  and also Damon on Australia's ABC The World Today radio show.

So why – given Russia’s shocking record on harm reduction - has a Russian diplomat been appointed to a job with the lead UN role on harm reduction?

It seems hard to fathom why Ban Ki Moon would have made this appointment. It seems about as sensible as putting a North Korean diplomat in charge of press freedom.

Unfortunately the appointment process is almost entirely opaque so we can only speculate. Since rumours of Fedotov’s potential appointment (over other front runners including nominations from Canada and Brazil) began to circulate a few weeks back significant efforts have been made by various groups across the world to highlight the obvious concerns (backed by Harm Reducation and HIV/AIDS NGO activity, and a nascent grass roots social media campaign - see this HCLU video for example). These have clearly either been ignored or outgunned by other pressures. Russia have never been a major funder of the UNODC either (but then nor have Italy who have dominated the ED role for decades) – so there is no suggestion that they have bought their way into the role.

Such appointments are evidently made following endless behind the scenes diplomatic horse trading of one sort or another. One suspects that with Russia being such a big player in global politics and the UN, they were ‘due’ a big posting or two, and the UNODC just drew the short straw. Maybe other unrelated pressures were brought to bear.  Ban Ki Moon may have had reservations (other big hitters within the UN certainly will have done) but been able to do very little about it.

How is this likely to play out?

At this stage of course it’s simply impossible to know. However, it seems unlikely that Fedotov could seriously promote a hard line Russian approach within the UNODC, at least not publicly. Not only would this run counter to the direction of travel in the agency over the last few years (and the views of most UNODC staff), but it would be a direct challenge to the many member states active within the UN who have adopted pragmatic harm reduction positions. Just as seriously would be the impossible situation that such a move would create for UNODC relations with UNAIDS, the WHO and the many other UN agencies that directly and vocally support harm reduction. Expect to hear a lot more about all this from this month’s huge international AIDS conference in Vienna (a key action of which is the Vienna Declaration).

So trying to find some positives here, there may be a possibility that the appointment will actually expose Russia to greater scrutiny and thus ultimately help drag them out of the dark ages. But a moderately progressed Russian drug policy would still seem hopelessly backwards to much of the rest of the world.

Despite some of the issues around the previous Executive Director Antonio Costa, he has (albeit interspersed with often bizarrely rude outbursts and ill judged rants) made some significant statements on issues including the priority of public health, the importance of harm reduction, the unacceptability of the death penalty for drug offences, the futility of eradication, the centrality of human rights to drug policy, and the negative consequences of supply side enforcement (click for a Transform blog retrospective).

Even if no more progress is made (and there is certainly a long way to go) it is hard to see how these positive steps – all on the record - can be undone, or somehow be renounced by the new ED on behalf of the UNODC.

More likely is that the Russian influence will be subtle but corrosive. Progress made – much of it through the heroic efforts of the NGO community (IHRA’s HR2 program and the IDPC for example) – could now stall, important ongoing developments will be kicked into the long grass, and discussions on future developments that might have taken place, will now not happen. This would have serious consequences for the development of harm reduction in some of the places where it most urgently needed (not least Russia), but also impact on emerging developments such as embedding of human rights monitoring and assessment into all UNODC programs.

If the situation on key issues such as human rights and harm reduction does begin to seriously deteriorate then the UNODC could come under intense strain. Key UNODC funders (not least the UK) could come under pressure to withdraw or suspend funding. More seriously, the tensions (between hard line and  more progressive harm reduction states) that were evident at the 2008 Commission on Narcotic Drugs during the drafting of the Political declaration (specifically around the inclusion of the words 'harm reduction') could become more acute. These simmering tensions could easily erupt into a full blown crisis, with the reform states coalescing around a breakaway reform agenda that could threaten the whole UN drug control infrastructure. At the very least such a crisis could render the UNODC, INCB, CND and the conventions they stand behind increasingly redundant and irrelevant – with the unquestionably useful elements of the system suffering along with the outdated and counterproductive.

Perhaps such a crisis is what is needed in the longer term, with a more rational flexible international drug control infrastructure, one fit for the challenges of the new century, emerging from the ashes of the tired broken old one we have now.

Perhaps. But for now this seems like a huge backward step for both the UN drug control agencies and indeed the UN as a whole.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it is a good thing - then noone will take the agency seriously and criticism will just increase. With someone else they might have pretended to be for harm reduction while not really doing it.

Anonymous said...

Has no one considered that there might be something to learn from the Russian approach, before arrogantly dismissing it? Perhaps, however, that would be too much to ask of an article which repeatedly refers to its main character as both 'Fedotov' and 'Fedatov', and offensively states that Russians are in the 'dark ages'. Presumably 'enlightenment' then is the sole property of those 'progressives' who speak the language of 'human rights', as long as those rights do not refer to the rights of conservatives or people who believe in 'traditional values'...

HR2 said...

Anonymous - define 'traditional values'

Steve Rolles said...

anon - thanks for highlighting the typo. This blog was produced rapidly in response to breaking news. I have corrected it.

Russia's drug policy is not 'arogantly dissmissed', nor does the analysis rest in any way on political positioning or values.

It is based on a analysis of the outcomes of the policy; primarily the fact that they have an exploding population of injecting drug users and over a million related IDU HIV transmissions. That horrendous failure, the terrible human cost it carries, and the long term failure to implement proven responses, deserves opproborium. And if that approach is to be carried to center stage in UN - it is right to highlight the obvious concerns and potential implications for the positive elements of the UNODC's work.

Please let us know what you think we have to learn from the Russians on drug policy, specifically best practice in addressing problematic use /injecting (supporting evidence would be useful). Im also interested to hear your specific concerns with international human rights law - to which all UN member states are signatories and which are at the core of all UN activities.

Matthew Heenan said...

The UN is increasingly powerless ie could not prevent illegal Iraq invasion and becoming a discredited organisation ie missing Haiti relief funds. Let the UN huff and puff... it's up to countries to do the right thing by their own people.

Nemo said...

Historically, when an orthodoxy is challenged on the basis for its' legitimacy, the defenders of said orthodoxy tend to become increasingly belligerent in its' defense...just before a final fall from its' own ponderous weight.

It would seem that, in the face of the ongoing (and increasingly successful) challenge to its' legitimacy, the UN drugs 'orthodoxy' as represented by the UNODC has sought an even more zealous 'protector' of the faith' than Mr. Costa.

But it will only serve to illustrate just how far out of step efforts based on law enforcement are when it comes to 'drug control'...which ultimately controls nothing.

The cornerstone of the UN's anti-drug efforts has always been the Single Convention Treaty (a largely American contrivance spearheaded by racist bigot Harry Anslinger), which contains an 'escape hatch'; signatories may denounce the treaty and 6 months afterward withdraw from it.

Those signatory nations (i.e. Colombia, Peru, Nigeria, Ghana, The Ivory Coast, etc.) that are being destabilized courtesy of the economic, social and political effects of drug prohibition and who have not seen any benefits for their support of that treaty may finally become so fed up that they withdraw from it.

At which point the UNODC house of cards will come tumbling down, as nations that cannot afford the (incredibly wasteful) infrastructure necessary to 'fight' drugs will be forced to adopt more reasonable - and less expensive - alternative programs.

In short, this appointment may be the signal that the 'pious' among the UN anti-drugs orthodoxy are about to go crazy...heralding an approaching collapse, that, had it happened long ago, might have provided the impetus for rational policy formulation on the national level.

So, buckle up...this could be a rough ride before it finally smooths out.

Steve Rolles said...

FYI There's an detailed appendix in Transform's 'Blueprint for regulation' on UN level / convention reform. see here: