Massimo Barra

President, Standing Commission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Geneva
From: “Global Violence: Consequences and Responses” International Institute of Humanitarian Law – Editore Franco angeli

I would like to congratulate the Institute for devoting this traditional September Round Table to the theme of global violence. Violence is part of both human nature and human fate. A world without violence exists only in the Kingdom of Utopia, where all the people are wise: unfortunately this is not our world. Let me take advantage of such a distinguished audience to focus on a particular aspect of violence which – if duly treated at the humanitarian level by the international community – could result in immediate benefits to the quality of life of millions.

All over the world it is evident that urban violence is strictly linked to drug matters, be it consumption (which globally affects more than 200 million people) or related illicit trafficking. Within the international community there is a general agreement on a prohibitionist approach to such issues: for the time being, it seems that iicre are no alternatives to this strategy, set out by specific treaties.

The best argument against anti-prohibitionist thesis is represented by the fact that licit drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, kill more than illicit ones. Prohibition actually limits consumption and everybody agrees that drugs are not good for individuals and mankind. But in too many parts of the world politicians and policy makers have out violent and repressive strategies, declaring war on drugs; this attitude suddenly resulted in a war against drug users, triggering a perverse circuit of growing violence.

Drug users are seen either as criminals or, in the best case scenario, as sinners to be redeemed at any cost, even by neglecting their fundamental rights. Prisons all over the world are filled with drug users and many rehabilitation centres look more like concentration camps than places where society takes care of its weakest, sick sons.

The United Nations themselves have finally became concerned about the terrible “collateral damages” of prohibitionist strategies; the World Drug Report 2009 issued by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime notes that “the system of international drug control has produced several unintended consequences, the most formidable of which is the creation of a lucrative black market for drugs and the violence and corruption it generates”. What has happened in the last 40 years – in which, according to a recent article in the New York Times, the war on drugs has burned 1 trillion dollars in the United States alone – shows that this war has been lost and that it is essential to use less harmful strategies.
With the harsh and violent prohibition approach on the one hand and the illusory anti-prohibitionist thesis on the other, there is a third way that we can define as “humanitarian policy toward drug users”. Humanitarian policy considers helping drug users as a priority for governments and society, by adopting pragmatic and realistic strategies, without preconceived ideas about idea intake and therapy. All of us should be aware that a world without drugs is an unrealistic and illusory idea that drug users are sick and not to be treated as criminals, that we need a pragmatic, evidence-based approach towards public health measures to adopt.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has often dealt with drug and violence related themes since 1922, when a resolution on opium consumption was approved by the Asian Conference in Bangkok. More recently, other Movement’s contexts such as the International Conference, the General Assembly, the Governing Board and the Federation Health Commission have raised concerns about these issues, as did 120 National Societies which promoted the Rome Consensus calling for a humanitarian approach in this field. At this solemn event I, therefore, ask you to support, as human rights defenders, this new approach.

If necessary, a new international regulation should be promoted in order to both make licit and disseminate therapies able to improve the quality of life of drug users, reducing damages to individuals and society. This could have a substantial and immediate impact on the effort to reduce violence in our cities.