11/20/19 Damon Barrett

Century of Lies
Damon Barrett
Drug War Facts

November 20 2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child, a human rights instrument ratified by every other nation on earth but not by the United States. This week on Century we have a portion of my interview with human rights and drug policy expert Damon Barrett, plus we hear part of a news conference from UN Headquarters in Geneva on the report Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty.

Audio file



NOVEMBER 20, 2019

DEAN BECKER: The failure of the 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 am your host, Doug McVay, Editor of www.drugwarfacts.org.

This week we come to you live from the Bay Area. It is a long story; let’s get on with the show shall we? November 20th is the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Almost every nation on the planet has gratified that convention. There is only one country – I am embarrassed and deeply saddened to say that that country is the United States. We will put children in jail to protect them from jail; we will try children as adults and throw them in to adult penitentiaries; we will target pregnant women with criminal law and throw them in prison and put them in shackles to deliver their child if they do drugs because we care about the children. What a crock!

We are going to hear a briefing by Manfred Nowac, he is an independent expert who led the U.N. Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. He issued his report to the United Nation’s office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and we are going to hear a portion of his news conference on the release of that global study. But first, since it is the anniversary of the convention of the Rights of the Child, I wanted to go back to an interview I did a while back with a friend who is human rights and drug policy expert, Damon Barrett.

DAMON BARRETT: I lived in London for a very long time. I left Ireland in 2001 and lived in London for 12 years, and now I live in Sweden. At the risk of changing the subject from me to something that matters, things are getting better. This is an important human rights conversation. Sweden has this reputation for being very tough on drugs when compared to most other places it is really not just that. It has had a very ideological position about a drug-free Sweden and a drug-free society; and it does have some laws that I very much disagree with but there are two things to say. First of all, unlike Sweden, Russia and Brazil, which I believe how has the fourth highest decarceration rate in the world. Sweden has less people in prison for drug offenses now with the current rate being the lowest it has been in 50 years and that is intentional because Sweden values not putting people in prison. Similarly although Sweden for a long time was against harm reduction, the central government now is not. They say they took that position in the past but the evidence says otherwise now. Coverage of substitution therapy in Sweden is approximately 50% and there are problems with the program where you can be kicked off for a failed urine test which is not good and they have nothing in prisons but a tiny pilot program. There are only five needle exchanges in the country but that is three more than it was a few years ago. There have been two in the south of Sweden that have been running or 25 years.

The central government fights with the regional authorities to get more going because health spending has devolved so it is not as simple. One of the best things is that Sweden has been paying for drug user organizing for 15 years because it values drug user’s voices. It pays for the Swedish Drug Users Union, or (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Swedish. They are a wonderful group of my friends who are invited on to the main public health committee’s to deal with Hepatitis C in the country. This is the reality of Sweden. The problem is that Sweden goes to the international stage all of these years and says we need a restrictive approach, and let’s not reform drug laws. In that way it misrepresented itself, it actually is more uncommon with Switzerland or Portugal than it does in Russia, but it seems to find itself sitting alongside Russia because it doesn’t like reform. I think maybe they started to realize this because that is an embarrassing and unhelpful diplomatic seat to have. The human rights message of that is two things. One is that Sweden really values civil society voice and it values these things more broadly so its drug laws can only do so much damage not matter how much I disagree with them. It is held back by everything else that Sweden does so the way I put it is if you want to attempt prohibition of all of these drugs and attempt this idea of a drug-free society then let’s look at Sweden. You should have everyone paying high taxes and be happy about it; paying for incredible social services; incredible social safety nets. You should divert everybody possible from prison, you should have low income inequality, low gender inequality, universal access to healthcare, excellent education system and all of that in place first and then maybe you can attempt prohibition and even then you will run in to trouble. If you take the same policy and you dump it in the United States of America, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico where there is corruption, poverty and all of these things and you are asking for an enormous mess. The only thing you can say with Sweden is that you are going to get a fair trial. If you go to Indonesia you are probably not. These things matter and these are the things that human rights analyses really unpack and then pull out. I think that is important because in the end what we are doing is just not all about drug laws. I know people have different visions here but if everybody got exactly what they wanted tomorrow however they envision it. Someone might want a free market dream, someone might want a state monopoly but if everybody in their own heads got exactly what they wanted tomorrow would they go away as social justice activists, would they leave the party and suddenly those of us who as Ethan would say, don’t give a damn about drugs; would we be left picking up the pieces of the drug war, which take long-term healing I think.

DOUG MCVAY: I think you are right that it was an incredibly important thing. The fact that Sweden has five needle exchanges and it is a government sanctioned approval, right?

DAMON BARRETT: Absolutely. It is paid for by the taxpayer. Absolutely. This is important as well in that not only does it see the benefit in preventing disease transmission they also see it as a component of social welfare and care in that the Stockholm Needle Exchange opened and they were already in contact with loads of people that social welfare and health services hadn’t reached before. It was a new service that they could go to and they found out that almost all of them (above 80%) were Hepatitis C Positive. This is all hugely important stuff. There are huge downsides in Sweden as well with the highest per capita overdose drug rate in Europe and the fourth highest amphetamine use rate. On the positive side they do have very low rates of use among adolescents and school (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they do have that, too, so it is a bit of a paradox. You have to take every country as it is. My answer to my question is that I don’t think a lot of these people would go away. There are a lot of people here that see drug policy the way that I and some of my colleagues see it. It happens to be a center of gravity around which a lot of the things that we do care about revolve because of prohibition and punitive drug enforcement and when this goes away a lot of those things will still be there.

I talked a lot in my speech about the threat narrative around drugs that we all know about; the drug scourge and all of that kind of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) but it is very insidious. What I said was that if you set up a threat and point the finger at who to blame then human rights abuses are coming and what I don’t get is how people who support prohibition cannot see that they are essentially making a rod for their own backs because there will be another threat tomorrow, something else; and all you have done is set up institutions and a legitimacy for that level of oppression in the name of whatever threat they see. It is the war on terror, the war on drugs and it is going to be something else. What is missing is some kind of empathy with the current victims in order to see that one day that could be you. This is the golden rule in every society, every culture, and every religion which is ‘don’t treat others the way you would not like to be treated’ and ‘do unto others’. They are different translations of the same thing and everybody knows it. This is very simple but the problem with drugs is that people can’t identify and they can’t empathize which is the real reach of stigma. Either because people are too far away or in the case of drugs, they just can’t see that that is somehow their own brothers and sisters. Similarly with the refugee crisis right now if that were my children I had to send away running I would hope that someone would look after them and if it was just me and I didn’t have children I would hope that someone would help me. We have a lot of jargon and big words to describe very basic concepts of what if it was me.

We heard from Kimba Smith on Day 1. I would not want anybody I know getting 27 years for no more than carrying some money around the place. That is not okay. I would not accept that for me, I would not accept a criminal record for my kids however old they might be because they experimented with something and ruining so much for them. I would not accept that for them. I would not accept a noose around my neck, so I can’t accept it for anybody else. It is just that simple. I think one of the problems with the supporters of prohibition is a lack of empathy, a lack of ability to see who is at the receiving end of all of this and if they could then maybe they would see that ‘But for the grace of God, there go I’. It is the same thing as the Golden Rule. I think that is something that is missing and it requires a huge amount of demonization and stigma to achieve it on this scale.

DOUG MCVAY: That was my interview with Damon Barrett. We got together a few years ago at a Drug Policy Alliance conference. He is a brilliant man and an expert on human rights and drug policy.

You are listening to Century of Lies. I am your host, Doug McVay. November 20, 2019 is the 30th anniversary of the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. We are going to hear a portion of a news conference with Manfred Nowak is a professor in Vienna, Austria, and he was the expert who led the U.N. Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. Let’s hear from Professor Nowak.

PROFESSOR NOWAK: We were requested to address 60 foreign situations of depravation of liberty of children and of course children means all human beings up to the age of 18.

One of the situations was with institutions depriving children of their liberties starting with orphanages, institutions for children with disabilities, for children in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, for children who need educational supervision, etc. All together there are about 5.4 million children to date in institutions around the world and that is a conservative figure. It is less than (UNINTELLIGIBLE) estimated in 2006 when the figure was still 8 million children. In reality, these children are deprived of liberty and that means they cannot simply leave of their own free will. Although a certain percentage, which we approximate as 670,000 are really formally deprived of liberty by a decision of a court or an administrative agency because very often it is the parents who feel they cannot deal with the child that place them in an institution or others that are caregivers and that is why there is this big discrepancy between the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) factor. The same is true in the administration of justice. If you take the very conservative estimates it is 410,000 children in prisons after convictions and in pretrial detention. Again, this is a lower number than the number that UNICEF has sited since the late 90s, which was about 1 million children. There might also be reasons that there are more child justice systems that this number has actually dropped but if you add about 1 million children on an annual basis in police custody you come up to a little more than 1.4 million children. The third one is migration related detention. Our conservative estimate is 330,000 children around the world are currently detained in immigration detention. The fourth one is children in the context around conflict. You know that many children today are reported by terrorists or extremist groups with the most well-known at the moment being the Islamic State, and then they are arrested by governmental authorities partly accused of being child soldiers and part of them being accused of being terrorists. There are only 29,000 to date held in Syria to the north and the Kurdish dominated areas where now the Turkish Invasion took place, as well as in Baghdad. Many of those children’s were themselves recorded but also were brought by their parents some were even born in the Kalifate and now are detained under very deplorable conditions. We also have children that are living with their primary care givers and that means in reality they are with their mothers. We estimate that number conservatively to be around 19,000, and this is a very difficult issue. In fact our main recommendation there is that mothers with small children should simply not be deprived of liberty as there are always alternatives. That brings me to the legal side of things.

Article 37B of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is very, very clear. It states: No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. This means that in principle, children should not be deprived of liberty and states should look to find non-custodial solutions which are usually available; it is simply a question of politics. Either you invest primarily in the criminal justice system or you invest more in the child welfare system and support the families. Very often families are lacking the support and therefore children end up in institutions or in the criminal justice system.

Our main conclusions are fairly clear with respect to institutions deinstitutionalized. Children should live and grow up in families whether it is their own family, a foster family, or a family-type setting and not in institutions where they are deprived of liberty and treated with strict discipline and there is a lot of violence and there is no love, etc.

The criminal justice system states should adopt specific juvenile justice systems, special juvenile courts, and apply diversion at every stage of the criminal procedure which can be done by the police when arresting children to find a way that the family or the child welfare system takes care of a child in conflict with the law. It can be done by the prosecutors or the judges finally and we see when we look at children that this happens at a much higher level with girls. The reason might be about attitudes. If the girl is accused of having committed an offense they can give her back to the family or find another solution but we should not deprive her of liberty under pretrial detention or police custody. About one-third of criminal offenses by children are committed by girls, but in the end it is only 6% of all children deprived of liberty in prisons or pretrial detention. 94% are boys and that is also a very interesting finding in the study. The third item is migration related detention. There is a lot of evidence from different treaty monitoring bodies of the United Nation’s, UNICEF, The High Commission of Refugees, International Organization for Migration, along with many others and I share that migration related detention for children can never be considered as a measure of last resort or in the best interest of the child. There are always alternatives available and there are quite a number of states that have decided already that they will no longer put children in migration related detention. With respect to national security and armed conflict I think the main recommendation is to treat those children even if they were recorded as child soldiers and have committed crimes; treat them primarily as victims and not as perpetrators. Try to find ways for rehabilitation and reintegration in to society and this applies to children primarily from European origin or central Asian origin who were recorded by the Islamic State so that they should actually take them back in order to deal with them in the child welfare system. These are some of the main conclusions and I will leave it at that for the time being and I am happy to answer and respond to any questions or comments that you might have. Thank you.

MALE VOICE: The floor is open for questions. Yes, the lady at the front.

FEMALE VOICE: Thank you and good morning. My name is Lisa Schlein, and I am with the Voice of America. It is nice to see you. I did follow you when you were the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture for a number of years and I would like to welcome you back.

I would like to know if during your investigation you dealt with these issues on a regional basis and do you have a breakdown in terms of where the problems exist. You listed six of them so one would have to delineate them but whether there were certain area, regions, or countries where these problems where more acute than others and more specifically; my own country, the United States of America where there seems to be an enormous problem regarding children who are migrating to the United States and many of them are being put in to detention. Did you look specifically in to that issue and if so, what are your main observations and conclusions in that regard?

PROFESSOR NOWAK: Thank you very much. Separating children from their parents as was done by the Trump Administration at the Mexican/US border is absolutely prohibited by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I would call it inhumane treatment for both the parents and the children. There are still quite a number of children that are separated from their parents and the parents don’t know where their children are, nor do the children know where their parents are. That is something that definitely should not happen again and I am happy that within the United States politics there was a lot of criticism of this inhumane treatment. Overall, and I am talking about children with their parents and unaccompanied children or minors and the United States is one of the countries with the highest numbers with more than 100,000 children in migration related detention in the United States of America. That is far more than all of the other countries where we have reliable figures.

In the area of criminal justice the situation is unfortunately also not that different in the United States of America if you relate them in general to the incarceration rate of adults is very high. It is about 60 out of 100,000 and that is the highest we could find followed by others like Bolivia, Botswana, or Shri-Lanka.

You referred to my function as Special Rapporteur on torture. It was really fact finding that I did in relation to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who invited me. We did not really do fact finding in the sense that we would go somewhere and really try to establish the facts, we relied on one hand on the responses to our questionnaire that is sent out to all U.N. Member States, but we also sent it out to U.N. Agencies, non-governmental organization, national human rights institutions, and national preventive systems, etc., and we used a lot of official data. The United States of America, unfortunately did not respond to our questionnaire. Most of the data is publicly available by U.N and U.S. Statistical Offices. In general the North American region has the highest regional imprisonment rate of children. In the United States it is about 60, Canada about 14-15.

LISA SCHLEIN: I am sorry – 60 out of –

PROFESSOR NOWAK: 60 out of 100,000 children in the country.

LISA SCHLEIN: So 60,000 children out of 100,000?

PROFESSOR NOWAK: No. The rate is the proportion so out of 100,000 children, 60 are deprived of liberty. If I compared it with the average invest in Europe, it is about five. The second highest is in the Central American and Caribbean region at 16, and in South America at 19. We could say that the American hemisphere has the highest rate of children deprived of liberty in the Administration of Justice. Compared to others like Asia, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they are all below 10%. The lowest being in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Africa. So there are quite a bit of differences and again you will find them in the global study. .So we have to be very careful because they are partly based on official statistics and replies to the questionnaire but partly on other sources and we had to compile them. These are all very conservative figures where we were 100% sure that we can base ourselves on these figures.

DOUG MCVAY: That was a portion of a news conference with Professor Manfred Nowak, he is an independent expert who led the U.N. Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty.

For now that is all the time we have. I want to thank you for joining us. For the Drug Truth Network this is Doug McVay saying 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 are archived at the James A. Baker, III Institute for Public Policy.

You have been listening to Century of Lies we are a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. On the web at www.drugtruth.net. I have been your host, Doug McVay, editor of www.drugwarfacts.org. The Executive Producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are available by podcast, the URL’s to subscribe are on the network homepage at www.drugtruth.net