South Africa’s diplomatic mission in Vienna submitted a reactionary position on drug policy to the United Nations, despite African Union member states having worked for months to draft a far more progressive stance.
This emerged at a drug policy conference in Cape Town last week, at which outraged delegates demanded an explanation for why a document from the minority “African Group” (AG) in Vienna was submitted instead of the AU’s “Common African Position” (CAP).
One of the most controversial clauses of the “AG” document is its support for stronger control over ketamine, used as an anaesthetic in places without electricity or oxygen supplies.
China is lobbying for ketamine to become a scheduled medicine because of some abuse of it in its country, but this will drastically limit its availability in rural and war-torn areas.
“Hundreds of thousands of people who need emergency surgery will die or suffer intense pain if ketamine becomes a scheduled medicine that can only be prescribed by a doctor,” said Dr Liz Gwyther, CEO of the Hospice Palliative Care Association of SA.
Ketamine is on the World Health Organisation’s essential medicine list, and WHO official Marie-Paule Kieny says “controlling ketamine internationally could limit access to essential and emergency surgery, which would constitute a public health crisis in countries where no affordable alternatives exist”.
The AG document also does not mention of “harm reduction” options in relation to addicts, focusing only on punishment for those who supply and use illegal drugs.
A UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs is being held in April and there is intense lobbying for policy change. The world is completely polarised, with some countries executing drug users and others legalising many drugs.
South Africa, as chair of the African Group in Vienna – comprised of only 15 African countries including Morocco, which is not an AU member – submitted the AG position ahead of UNGASS without the knowledge of the AU.
The AU had submitted the “CAP” document to SA Ambassador in Vienna Tebogo Seokolo, and thought this had been submitted to UNGASS on behalf of the continent.
“What went wrong?” asked Maria-Goretti Ane, a Ghana-based consultant for the International Drug Policy Consortium, at the Run2016 Cape Town conference hosted by the TB/HIV Care Association. “Something else drafted by Egypt was given to South Africa to submit. Africa needs to speak out. Why shelve the right document, which came out of the consultative process?”
Ironically, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Social Development, Henrietta Bogopane-Zulu,* chaired the technical committee that drafted the CAP.
An African Union source* confirmed that Seokolo had been sent the CAP for submission to the UN in Vienna. On hearing that CAP had not been forwarded to UNGASS, the AU sent a delegation to Vienna in December to find out what had happened explanation, but had not received a satisfactory answer.
“As the AU, we can only engage in diplomacy. Member countries are our bosses, and it is only member states that can take up this issue,” said the source.
Meanwhile, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) rejected claims that Seokolo had “betrayed” the African Union.
Between June and December last year, Seokolo was chairperson of the African Group, which “enjoys the formal and official negotiating status within various United Nations organisations and other international organisations based in Vienna,” DIRCO spokesperson Nelson Kgwete told Health-e News.
“The Chairperson of the African Group is accountable to the African Group in Vienna and promotes the agreed positions and interests of the Group. There is no formal relationship between the African Group in Vienna and the African Union Commission,” he added.
According to DIRCO, there was a parallel process with both the AG in Vienna and the AU in Addis Ababa developing positions on drugs independently.
On receiving the CAP, AG members who are also AU members (i.e. everyone except Morocco) “collectively decided that the draft CAP could not be forwarded to the UNGASS Board because the Group felt that there were was a need for further consultation on some of the elements contained in the CAP”, said Kgwete.
While UNGASS has published a new draft policy of drugs based on the submissions, there is still time for lobbying ahead of the April meeting. – Health-e News.
An edited version of this story was also published in the Sunday Independent
[Updated 9 February 11:24 am This story has been amended to remove the source’s name following fears of possible victimisation. The story also previously stated incorrectly that Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini – not Department of Social Development Deputy Minister Henrietta Bogopane-Zulu – chaired the technical committee that drafted the CAP. The story has been edited to correct this error.]