September 9, 2016 By Saa Matthias D. BENDU
West Africa looks forward with optimism; civil wars have receded, democracy has gained ground and economies are growing. But a destructive new threat is jeopardising this progress; with local collusion, international drug cartels are undermining our countries and communities and devastating lives.
Illegal drugs production, abuse and trafficking is almost commonplace in Africa. West Africa in particular is fast establishing itself as a hub and transit point for drugs (especially heroin, cocaine and cannabis) moving between Europe, Latin America and Asia. The situation is creating a major burden for African governments which seem to be unprepared for this phenomenon and resorted to taking reactive, as opposed to proactive, measures to deal with the menace. The measures have focused on criminalisation and interception of drugs as measuring rod for determining success in “drug war” and denial of fundamental human rights for drug users, producers and traffickers.
To adopt a human rights approach to drugs is perceived as being “soft” on drugs and or “encouraging” their use. Incidentally, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has acknowledged the damaging “unintended consequences” of this approach, such as the unsustainably high numbers of individual in prison or pre-trial detention.
Evidence drawn from all countries of activities often undertaken by police and other law enforcement agencies, including often those involved in the provision of other public services [through the public and private health systems, the correctional system, employment provision and child and welfare services] reveal infringement of human rights on drug users, producers and traffickers. Thus increasingly and inexorably, it is becoming clear that understanding political, social and economic development is impossible without a complex understanding of drugs and relationship with economic, social and political conditions and institutions. This realisation calls for adopting a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach touching on among others, economics, sociology, political science, public health and law to deal with the problem.
Against this backdrop, the Open Society Foundation in New York, USA, Open Society Institute for West Africa in Dakar, Senegal, and Global Drug Policy Program, in collaboration with the School of Law, University of Ghana, Legon, has recently conducted the third series of executive course on human rights and drug policy in Accra, Ghana, with participant drawn from various sectors working on drugs related problems in English West Africa countries. Modules taught at the courses include: history and development leading international drug control conventions; drug control and criminal law; human rights and drug policy formulation; human rights and drugs; psychology and drugs; gender dimension of drug law/policy; international/regional approaches to drug control; national drug policies(West Africa; review of the implementation of national policies outside Africa; public health and drug policy (harm reduction); and CSO advocacy on application of human rights and public health approaches to drug use.
On the last day of the course some participants visited few drug ghettos in Accra and a drug rehabilitation centre.
Thirty (30) participants took part in this 3rd West Africa executive course on human rights and drug policy, with yours truly amongst the five participants from Sierra Leone. The course aims were to develop competencies of participants to help support their home governments to adopt drug policies which are underpinned by public health and citizens’ security, anchored in evidence-based harm reduction approaches and backed by laws or practices that keep people who use drugs out of stigmatisation, cells, courts and prisons.
In addition, the course helped develop a more complex understanding of illicit drugs and identify the contributions that different academic disciplines can make to the development of evidence-based policies. This goal will be realised through discussion and review of data, information and analysis to develop and apply human rights principles to the assessment of existing drug policies. It also aimed at giving participants the opportunity to reflect on the development of reform of public policy so that policies are based on accepted human rights laws and conventions, together with respect for the rule of law in all countries.
Finally, the course aimed to deconstruct some stylised facts which have served as a stumbling block to tackling the drug menace and reconstruct public policy on drugs on the harm reduction which emphasises human rights and public health.
Saa Mathias D. Bendu is National Coordinator Development Initiative and Hope for the Vulnerable, and Director of Communication West Drug Policy Network Sierra Leone Chapter.