05/01/19 Mary Chinery-Hesse

Century of Lies
Mary Chinery-Hesse

This week on Century, former UN official and retired international civil servant Dr. Mary Chinery-Hesse addresses the 2019 International Harm Reduction Conference #HR19 in Porto, Portugal. Thanks to Harm Reduction International, sponsor and host of #HR19, for allowing the conference plenary and other sessions to be webcast live. Many thanks also to Rights Reporter Foundation DrugReporter for their work filming and webcasting the event.

Audio file



MAY 1, 2019

DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Well, at the time of this recording, the 2019 International Harm Reduction Conference is going on in Porto, Portugal. #HR19 is a conference organized by Harm Reduction International. It features speakers from around the world active in policy and in service providing.

The first plenary was on Drug Policy: The Push For Justice. We're going to hear a portion of that now. The first speaker is Doctor Mary Chinery-Hesse. She is a retired international civil servant. Doctor Chinery-Hesse is introduced by Ann Fordham, the executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium.

ANN FORDHAM: My name is Ann Fordham, I'm the executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, and it gives me great pleasure to be the chair for this morning's plenary session on Drug Policy: The Push For Justice, with my beautiful, inspiring, and diverse panel of speakers who I'm honored to be introducing to you today.

The fight for justice within drug policy is very critical, as we heard yesterday from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, there is still much work to do. There is an unmitigated human rights disaster that still goes on in the name of the war on drugs in so many parts of the world.

And today, we will hear from our speakers about the important work that they are doing on this front to continue the fight for social justice and human rights in drug policy.

So without further ado, I'm going to introduce our first speaker. I'm very honored to introduce Doctor Mary Chinery-Hesse. She's a dear friend and a mentor of mine. Doctor Chinery-Hesse is a retired international civil servant who served as the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in several countries.

She was the first African woman to be appointed to that position, and she was appointed as the first woman Deputy Director of the International Labor Organization with the rank of Undersecretary-General of the UN. She's also served as chief adviser to the president of the Republic of Ghana.

She is currently Chancellor at the University of Ghana, and serves as a friend to the African Panel -- Union Panel of the Wise, and is a Commissioner of the West African Commission on Drugs, and also is a dear and beloved board member of the IDPC. Mary, you have the floor.

MARY CHINERY-HESSE, LLD (HC): Good morning. What a pleasure to see so many people coming to listen to me speak. And such a special group. I'm so happy to have the opportunity to present a voice of Africa, which generally tends to be rather muted.

And to be speaking to people, really, who have the third dimension. We're not talking to academics only, we're also talking to people who face situations on a daily basis, and therefore who are likely to give more relevant suggestions and make proposals which affects the life of people.

And the emphasis on human rights, I think, is appropriate to have such an audience, who will bring in the third dimension.

So, I'm just saying that -- excuse me -- that I feel so honored to be here, and I would start by thanking those who have brought me here. I very much would thank Harm Reduction International, but also the local NGO, APDES [Agência Piaget para o Desenvolvimento], who have made all this possible.

My information is that this happens every other year, and is the biggest, the biggest assembly. I'm overwhelmed that I'm part of it. Thank you so much for having me here.

But, somebody would ask why it's important for the voice of Africa, and in my case, I'll say west Africa, to be heard, when we sit in this manner. I think the subject matter itself lends itself to global treatment, and I do not think any part of the world should be left out.

I think the message is stronger and more relevant when everybody hangs together, and gets themselves on the same track, and to create a critical mass, which basically will make a difference in this particular area where we believe that the more the world appears to be doing, the more we appear to be going back.

And because of that, to work out new strategies which are -- is the challenge we have now, new strategies which will move the debate forward and lead to positive actions in this regard.

But west Africa is peculiar. I say this because we have realized that there's a lot of international criminal activity. Our borders are pourous, our coastlines are underpatrolled, and our government institutions are vulnerable.

Our countries are used as transshipment points between the production centers in Latin America and Asia, and consumer markets in Europe and the United States. Countries face three interrelated dangers from illegal drug trafficking in west Africa.

First, there's the threat from drug profits funding corruption, which can corrode state institutions and undermine good governance and the rule of law.

You know, we've had a situation like in Guinea Bissau, where the president of the country, sitting president, was executed in front of his family, in fact, chopped up like, bam, in front of his family, because of the situation and the impact on governance of these issues.

So, these are, for us, we cannot sweep these matters under the carpet. That's why we have a Commission set up.

Then, there's the risk that drug traffickers may link up with other criminal elements, or worse, extremists groups that may be trying to infiltrate the region. We currently have that situation in the Sahel.

And then finally there is the harmful impact on the health and social cohesion of local communities caused by growing drug consumption.

You know, my dear brother who passed on, Kofi Annan, was a very wise man, and therefore, looking at the situation, mooted the idea of the West African Commission on Drugs.

Of course, we're very sad that he passed on. I personally was very -- I felt wounded, because he was my childhood friend. We grew up together. We were in the United Nations together, and he became a true brother.

Soon after he died, my husband also passed on. So, last year was a horrible year for me, but at least Kofi has a legacy. When I look around this room, I find that some of the ideas which he pushed were truly relevant to humanity.

I don't know if I can impose on you, Madame Chair, to ask that we have a minute's silence to honor my brother, and my friend, Kofi Annan. Just for a minute, if you get on your feet, and let us.


Thank you very much indeed. Thank you. I'm sorry to impose on you in this manner, but I think it's necessary, because his voice really helped, in this regard, and he was a great communicator. He managed to put things very simply, very quietly, but for all to comprehend.

And, what he said then was, I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more. And we have to keep this in mind as we work here today.

But let me now, very quickly, turn on to the West African Commission on Drugs itself. It's regionally led, and it's an independent group. I think we have something on the -- the selection of people to serve on the Commission took into account our situation in west Africa.

People play big man, you know, so they will only give audience to people who they think are like themselves. And I think Kofi Annan had the right idea, by selecting people who could open doors, and who could not be written off by presidents they tried to talk about. It's a peculiarity of our region, and I think the Commissioners selected fit that mold.

But in addition, we -- he also brought in young people. He brought in actors, people who could relate to the young in society, and so on, and that has been very effective. Some of us, our grandchildren think we should not be talking at all. But, they listen to people who they sing with together, dance their new steps, you know.

If you challenge me, I will do that, but I'm sure they will laugh. They will not be impressed. So, I'm just trying to say, the Commission was very well constituted, and we buckled down to carry out research relevant to our environment.

The long and the short of it was, we brought our findings and recommendations, which we have put up, the report was published in 2014, and that gave a holistic overview of the impact of drug trafficking and consumption on governance, security, development, and public health in West Africa.

I'll just, because of time constraints, you know, I'll just highlight a very few of these findings.

We found that it is still mostly users, small time dealers, and drug couriers, who are arrested and imprisoned. In this way, the law is applied, the law as it exists today, is applied disproportionately to the poor, the uneducated, and the vulnerable, while the powerful and well connected slip through the enforcement net.

In other words, the small fry is caught, while the big fish swim free.

But, I don't think this is peculiar to our situation, that's the situation in a lot of countries, and therefore there's still work to be done in terms of the law in most parts of the world. So we're really going to tackle the problems and not punish the weak, that's, not punish them as they're people you can get at easily, and who cannot buy their way out.

DOUG MCVAY: You're listening to Century of Lies, I'm your host Doug McVay. We're listening now to a portion of the first plenary at the 2019 International Harm Reduction Conference, taking place in Porto, Portugal. The speaker is Doctor Mary Chinery-Hesse. We'll be back with more in just a moment.

Porto is a beautiful city. I wish I could be there. Unfortunately I just don't have the travel budget. Well, at least my carbon footprint isn't quite as bad as a result. Fortunately, some of the folks there at the harm reduction conference include my friends from Drug Reporter.

Rights Reporter Foundation Drug Reporter is an excellent organization. You should go to their Facebook page at Facebook.com/DrugReporter. You can find there a lot of the videos that they are shooting at this event, including the main plenary sessions and some of the panel discussions.

Quite a lot of the content is being streamed via Facebook to the public by Drug Reporter. This conference in Porto is a long way away, a lot of people like myself, a lot of others, can't make it for one reason or another. Thanks to Drug Reporter, we can still learn from the people there, we can still participate in what's going on.

You can also find Drug Reporter at their website, which is DrogRiporter.hu, that's DrogRiporter.hu. They have an English language version as well as the original Hungarian. You can find links there for a lot of their videos, they've been working for many years to document international drug policy reform and harm reduction efforts.

And again, they're there in Porto at the 2019 International Harm Reduction Conference, so if you go to the Drug Reporter Facebook page at Facebook.com/DrugReporter, you can find their videos, which they are streaming live from Porto.

Excellent content, I recommend it highly.

Many, many thanks to Harm Reduction International, the sponsors and hosts of #HR19, the 2019 International Harm Reduction Conference, for allowing all these sessions to be webcast. It is the way of the future. I am so glad that Harm Reduction International is embracing technology in this kind of way. It is so cool, and just, my thanks again to Harm Reduction International for allowing the webcast of this conference.

You can find that webcast material as well as a bunch of other great information at the Harm Reduction International website, which is HRI.global.

And now, let's get back to listening to some of that content. Here's Doctor Mary Chinery-Hesse, the opening plenary on Drug Policy: The Push For Justice.

MARY CHINERY-HESSE, LLD (HC): So, at the beginning of our work, we focused on the threats of drug trafficking to governance, as I have mentioned before, to security, and to development in our region.

During the course of our work, however, we were more and more struck by the problems of drug consumption with particular reference to other aspects of life in the region.

In Africa, in general, and in west Africa particularly, some cultural and religious beliefs tend to reinforce the stigma of people who use drugs. I don't know whether that is the situation in many parts of the world, but in my country, Ghana, for example, cannabis is translated in the indigenous languages as "abonsam tawa," which means the devil's tobacco.

This tends to deepen the demonization of the substance. Consequently, culturally, people who use drugs in my country identify as users of a devilish substance, with all that that entails. And they tend to be even more ostracized than in other places as a result, because you've brought in this religious sort of spiritual, you know, color, to the whole thing. It's very, very bad.

And, in South Africa, for example, a study conducted reveals that people are more likely to offer help to alcohol users, but more likely to suggest aggressive measures for drug users. This shows that morality and ethics are heavily involved in how drug users are perceived.

The picture of young people in west Africa today is that of a most at-risk population, when compared to their peers in other parts of the world. Viewed from any perspective, employment, literacy, life expectancy, exposure to harm from social conflicts, opportunity to achieve potentials, the west African adolescent or young child is at a disadvantage.

Sadly, drug use and the state's response to it add another layer to the problems already being encountered by youth and their families on a daily basis.

And now, the region's drug laws are in desperate need of reform, we found out. It is obvious that to reduce the harm caused by the illegal drug trade, governments must modify their handling of drug users. Unjust laws can prevent people from accessing the services they need to prevent or treat HIV, and people who use drugs need help and care, not punishment. This is something we've been pushing a lot in our region.

And that is the main message from the new model drug law for west Africa, which was launched on Eleven September in Dakar, Senegal. And this model drug law aims to guide policy makers in the region on how to better frame their drug laws.

Our current situation, which stigmatizes and penalizes drug users, that's pushing them to the fringes of society or locking them up in ever increasing numbers, puts enormous pressure on the already overstretched criminal justice system.

There is as well absence of effective treatment and harm reduction services, and the West African Commission on Drugs strongly recommends the adoption of a drug treatment policy with minimum standards across the region. These are the things we have been working at.

I realize I don't have too much time, so I'm going to, I don't know how to do this, the nicer part of my presentation is in the last part, so, I will push on.

We, the West African Commission also concludes that drug use should not be a matter of criminal justice. Drug laws need to be reformed to decriminalize drug use and low level nonviolent drug offenses.

The protection of the security, health, human rights, and well being of all people, we have emphasized, needs to be the central goal, and I guess there will be enough discussed on this.

One of our recommendations, and I think we need a slide here, is to develop reformed, harmonized drug laws on the basis of existing and emerging minimum standards and pursue decriminalization of drug use and low level nonviolent drug offenses, and in order to sensitize policymakers, we have been going around a lot.

It's not a law we expect to be put on the shelf. We want it to be a living document to influence lawmakers, because sometimes, when it's just talk, nothing changes, but we spent a lot of time trying to sensitize those who make a difference in what goes on the law books, so that you change the nature and face of the law as it exists today, and as we think it's being implemented in a manner which is not very useful or in the interest of human rights.

And therefore we continue to go around countries, at very high levels. We send people like President Obasanjo, and so on, to join the sensitization effort, and I'm happy to say that we are making a difference.

We, in my country, Ghana, for example, in spite of the stigma and the religious aspects and so on, we actually have a drug law now in Parliament which is being influenced by what we have brought out within the context of the West African Commission on Drugs.

We discovered that not government -- not many governments knew how to tackle things, and one of the greatest achievements of the Commission is bringing out a model drug law, which we think should act as a template, as countries try to modify their law, and to make sure that we have looked at what is happening globally and selected the best things, and ensure that we have laws which then will be extremely progressive.

We want west Africa to be ahead of the pack in this regard. Very soon, [inaudible].

I'm really going to try to stop talking, my speech will be put out later. But, I want to say that, in a measured way, we're trying to balance criminal justice and health aspects of drug consumption by introducing thresholds. If caught with the equivalent amount of what somebody would use in ten days, a person will have those drugs confiscated, but will not be arrested and sent to jail. This is what we are proposing.

I want to say that Africa stands by to study from all of you. So this, for me, is going to be a very, very important meeting for ourselves as well.

I also want to just say that we are using our regional organization ACOAS very much in trying to promote what we've put in there, and it's working. We're moving to the continental level, in fact we have already moved there, but in Africa, it's -- sometimes it's more difficult to work from the top to the bottom, so we're trying to motivate the regional organizations to get more involved, since we appear to have started something.

I'm happy to state that I personally try to be involved in actions being taken by -- within the context of southern Africa to introduce some of the ideas we've started here. I wish I could be talking to you more, but I'm, every minute I feel guilty, I should not be doing this to Ann, my friend, and therefore I will stop.

I hope that this will be distributed. Thanks for your attention. Thank you so much for having me here.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Doctor Mary Chinery-Hesse, a retired international civil servant, speaking at the 2019 International Harm Reduction Conference in Porto, Portugal. Again, Harm Reduction International, the sponsors, are allowing this webcast to go on, the audio that we're using on today's show, so many, many thanks again to Harm Reduction International. All that great content and much more at HRI.global.

And once again, thanks to our friends at the Rights Reporter Foundation Drug Reporter.

And that's it for this week. I want to thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

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We'll be back in a week with thirty more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.