Promoting Public Health Policies and Practices

Da: “Speech-Roundtable: Promoting Public Health Policies and Practices” Tuesday 08 March – Vienna International Centre
Dr. Massimo Barra, Vice-President of the International Federation of the red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

I would like to address all my thanks to The Senlis Council for inviting me to address participants of the CND on this day where the important debate on HIV/AIDS and drug use took place. Since its foundation in 1864, the Red Cross has rigorously followed its core Principle of Neutrality. This is the reason why, today, the Red Cross can work everywhere, in every community, regardless of racial, ideological, religious or political divides.

But the Red Cross has also another fundamental mission: the one of advocating for the most vulnerable people. This mission of advocacy was stated in a resolution by the council of Delegates in 1999, which established the Movement’s Policy on Advocacy. Far from being contradictory, those two forces, if I may call them like this, meet at the key point of alleviating human’s suffering. This is where the Red Cross finds its unique power of humanity.

The reason why I am giving this background is because at a time of disagreements, it is important to bring the discussion on public health policies and drug use down to a more neutral and rational ground: the one where science and compassion speak, and we listen.

Yes, drug addiction sets a huge and often disturbing human challenge to our modem societies. But we should not shy away from life-saving measures, which can help contain this phenomenon and its deadly consequences. Failing to do so would be to abandon the many victims of the drugs to their own sickness.
‘Spreading the light of science and the warmth of human sympathy’ were the words used in Paris en 1919 by the founders of the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Under this slogan, the Movement, which I have been involved with since the age of eight, has always directed its action in favour of vulnerable people particularly in the most obscure, stigmatised corners of our society, where sadly, drug users are often forced to live.

‘Spreading the light of science’ is now the title of the 2003 report of the Red Cross on HIV/AIDS and Harm Reduction, which ensures that a wide range of prevention programmes, including access to sterile injecting equipment, are implemented throughout the world. This report is a call made to the international community not to attach moral strings to public health practices aimed at drug victims.
Reducing harm and preventing death is a universal cause the Red Cross intends to pursue relentlessly. It achieves this through scientific evidence and by taking inspiration from the fundamental principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality. But science alone cannot provide the whole answer. The drug problem is not only a matter of changing people’s minds; it is also a question of reaching their hearts.

It is my belief that harm reduction programs are vital instruments of human compassion that encourage the social and physical well-being of drug users. I regard it as my duty to bring together individuals and organisations to advocate for the implementation of these programs.

Since founding one of the first drug user care centres in Italy thirty years ago, I have met more than 30,000 users. If I have learned anything, it is that stigmatisation and lack of care for drug victims is unwise and destructive, not only for the users themselves but for the communities in which they live. We should not let the routes of addiction lead to stigmatisation and destruction. That would be the failure of us all.

Reducing human suffering does not only save the lives of drug users, but it also represents a dramatic improvement for their direct environment and the whole community. Caring for drug users – regardless of their conditions and the type of addictions- does not only benefit public health but also Law and Order. I know that the police in the city of Rome with whom my drug care centre Villa Maraini works on a regular basis will agree with me; like many other actors at the frontline of the drug tragedy.
As an effort that must be shared by the community, the reduction of harm and suffering must not remain the privilege of few advanced and wealthy countries. This is simply because in Kabul, Tehran or Moscow, drug users face the same life-threatening conditions as users in the streets of Vancouver, Zurich or Glasgow -even worse. The work of the European Red Cross Network on HIV/AIDS (ERNA), which was created in 1998, is a direct response to the HIV/AIDS threat facing drug users in countries of Eastern Europe. Not only the health but also the security and economic development of countries in regions including Eastern Europe, Former Soviet Union and Asia are under threat, and basic health measures are denied the legal and political support they deserve.

By associating science with compassion, I believe that the international community can make a difference, particularly to the most vulnerable groups. The scientific and legal instruments for harm reduction policies are within our grasp; it is now only a matter of strengthening the international community’s will to implement these policies.

In 2008 the United Nations will review its drug policy commitments made in 1998. This will be the opportunity to make new choice and ground drug policy on humanitarian principles for the dignity of drug users and for the benefit of the global community.

Thank you very much for your attention and I am looking forward to having a fruitful discussion.