Wednesday, May 26, 2010 (London, UK and Port Louis, Mauritius) – UN human rights monitors have warned against the reintroduction of the death penalty for drug offences in Mauritius, suggesting instead a range of public health interventions designed to address drug related harm in the country, including the decriminalisation and legal prescription of buprenorphine (Subutex). The International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA) and Collectif Urgence Toxida (CUT) have today applauded the findings.

Througout May the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reviewed a comprehensive report submitted by Mauritius along with submissions from international and national NGOs. Among these was a report submitted by IHRA and CUT on the drug and AIDS situation in Mauritius that contained 7 recommendations. In its “Concluding Observations” released yesterday in Geneva, the Committee adopted all these recommendations and stated that it was “concerned at the alarmingly high number of injecting drug users” in the country and “about the sharp increase in cases of HIV/AIDS, particularly concerning intravenous drug users, sex workers and prison inmates”. It recommended that the Government “undertake a comprehensive approach to combat its serious drug problem.”

In recent years Mauritius has recognised the seriousness of its injecting drug use problem and injection driven HIV, scaling up harm reduction programs in the form of needle and syringe exchange and methadone prescription. According to the UN Committee, however, this has not been enough for Mauritius to live up to its international human rights commitments. The Committee monitors national implementation of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, a key international treaty ratified by Mauritius in 1973.

“It is certainly laudable that the Government has identified injecting driven HIV/AIDS as a major problem, but what the Committee has said is that Mauritius must do far more if it is to fulfil the right to health of some of its most vulnerable citizens,” said CUT President Percy Yiptong.

“Clearly the Committee was not misled by the statement coming from the Mauritian Government’s delegation in Geneva saying that `drug use was not at the alarming level the Committee had been led to believe and it was still a marginal problem.´

“This declaration has shocked all the NGOs members of CUT. Government and opposition parties during the recent electoral campaign declared that one of their priorities would be to fight the big drug problem.

“If, as the Mauritian delegation declares, `drug use is still a marginal problem,´ why would our Prime Minister threaten to reintroduce the death penalty to fight drug issues?,” concluded Yiptong.

The number of injecting drug users in Mauritius is very high, estimated at between 10,000 and 18,000 people. The majority of people inject buprenorphine (Subutex), a synthetic opioid, and the UN states that Mauritius has the second highest rate of opiate use in the world per head of population. The overall prevalence of HIV in Mauritius has been estimated at 1.8% by UNAIDS in 2007, representing approximately 12,000 people. In 2005, 92% of new HIV cases were related to unsafe injecting practices.

The UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights also warned strongly against the reintroduction of the death penalty as a means of dealing with drug issues. On February 24th Prime Minister Ramgoolam pledged to bring back capital punishment for trafficking in buprenorphine (Subutex) and went on to repeat this pledge during his election campaign. While the Committee recognised the need for the government to take “necessary measures to combat drug trafficking and related corruption”, it also stated clearly that “these measures (must) fully comply with the international human rights standards, including in relation to the abolition of the death penalty.”

“The UN Committee´s statement is significant because it makes clear that the death penalty is not solely an issue of civil and political rights, but also one that impacts negatively on economic, social and cultural rights as well,” said Rick Lines, IHRA’s Deputy Director. “The Committee has warned against such a draconian and abusive measure and has instead recommended the opposite – an approach based on human rights and public health. Its suggestion to decriminalise and legalise prescription of buprenorphine to those who are dependent is excellent. This would both reduce the potential for abuse and would get to the heart of the problem by significantly damaging the profits that are generated from the illicit trade.”

Source: International Harm Reduction Association