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Oct 10, 2007

UN Human Rights Report Praises Harm Reduction

United Nations LogoHuman Rights

In one of the strongest ever statements in support of harm reduction from the United Nation’s human rights mechanisms, Professor Paul Hunt, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, has stated that harm reduction is not only an essential public health intervention, but crucially, that it “enhances the right to health” of injecting drug users.

The Special Rapporteur, who reports to the Human Rights Council, is the United Nation’s expert on the right to health and is mandated to promote the implementation of the highest attainable standard of health for all. These comments from Professor Hunt are from a mission report from Sweden in February 2007, and were released recently. Whilst it was noted that Sweden has one of the highest standards of living and healthcare in the world, the Special Rapporteur stressed that “there is no room for complacency”. He was also “very surprised” at the low number of needle exchange schemes in Sweden, as these interventions have been proven to reduce and prevent blood-borne viruses among injecting drug users around the world.

Sweden is often promoted as a shining example of successful prohibitionist policies. Professor Hunt’s report actually coincides with the release of a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) entitled “Sweden’s Successful Drug Policy: A Review of the Evidence” – which applauds their ‘zero tolerance’ approach. The Special Rapporteur, however, could not have been clearer in his recommendations. Though recent legal reforms in Sweden now allow local governments to implement needle exchange programmes, Professor Hunt states that “such an important human rights issue cannot be left to the discretion of local government…the Government has a responsibility to ensure the implementation, throughout Sweden and as a matter of priority, of a comprehensive harm reduction policy, including counselling, advice on sexual and reproductive health, and clean needles and syringes”. There is no such statement in the UNODC report – despite the UNODC being responsible within the UN for overseeing and coordinating harm reduction responses!

What the Special Rapporteur’s report has clarified is that harm reduction is a human rights issue and that - even in a wealthy country with high standards of healthcare and living - special measures must be taken to ensure that the most vulnerable and marginalised are protected. Harm reduction is a vital component of the right to health and, therefore, it is an obligation owed by all countries to guarantee that right for injecting drug users.
Click here to view the Special Rapporteur country visits page – including the full report from the Sweden mission

Click here for the UNODC Report on Sweden


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