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In March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council will devote a day to discuss children's right to health. In preparation, the UN called for input from NGOs and others.

 Per Johansson, World Federation Against Drugs, took umbrage at CRIN’s submission in which we address drug use among children as a health issue, in particular through measures aimed at reducing harm. He said: “I find it very difficult to see that [this approach] is in line with the Article 33 [of the Convention on the Rights of the Child].” Taking him at his word, we would like to clarify our position.

Article 33 of the Convention reads:

“States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs [...] as defined in the relevant international treaties [...].”

This provision clearly requires States to take a multi-faceted approach from the harmful effects of illicit drugs in all respects. One of the harmful aspects of drug use by children is the risk related to the transmission of infectious diseases through practices such as syringe sharing. Many projects to counter this allow drug users to exchange used syringes for clean – a measure that significantly reduces risks concerning disease transmission.

Other policies that we expressed support for included opioid substitution therapy, a programme that seeks to draw heroin users off  the drug in favour of less dangerous substances. These measures lower the risk of disease transmission and combat the risk of fatal overdoses, but are rarely available to children. We argued that they have an appropriate place among the many measures that should be used to combat the dangers of drug use by children.

Mr Johansson suggested these measures are not compatible with Article 33, a position difficult to maintain if one is familiar with the literature of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has explicitly supported harm reduction measures as a means of combating the dangers of drug use, including in recommendations made to Ukraine, Albania and Austria.

The contention that Article 33 creates “a powerful obligation to protect children … from non-medical use of narcotic drugs” is also an interesting aspect of the critique. Leaving aside the fact that the article does not include the word medical, what we are arguing for is that measures to treat drug users should be just that: medical.

Mr Johansson criticised us for writing a response “not based on the child's right to protection from drugs, but instead [on] children who abuse drugs”. Leaving aside the idea that one can talk about protecting children from drugs without considering children who use drugs, this is a criticism that misunderstands both the meaning of protection and that of child rights.

To look at prohibition as if it will end drug-use demonstrates a particular naivete. We see children as actors of their own lives, not just passive subjects in need of protection.

Veronica Yates, Director
Child Rights International Network - CRIN London

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