Adding fuel to the fire: How Russia’s discriminatory laws are worsening the HIV epidemic

February 26, 2015

Despite widespread recognition that the so-called “war on drugs” has failed, we continue to read stories from around the world of the unjust criminalization, discrimination and the dehumanization of people who use drugs.

In Russia, bad laws that infringe the rights of people who use drugs are fueling the HIV epidemic. People who inject drugs are among the most vulnerable to new HIV infection. Without proper legal access to harm reduction services, such as needle and syringe programs (NSPs) and opioid substitution therapy (OST) with medications such as methadone, HIV infections will continue to rise. Although Russia has signed all core international human rights treaties and declarations, it remains – legally and politically – a country with minimal regard for the health and human rights of marginalized communities.

Russia is a focus country for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and our work in the region is led by Senior Policy Analyst Mikhail Golichenko. Alongside our Russian and regional partners (including the Andrey Rylkov Foundation), we have been advocating for Russia to reverse its ban on OST for some time. We’ve also been providing technical support to our partners in Russia by researching and advising on policies and laws that discriminate against and criminalize people who use drugs, while simultaneously fighting for their access to health care and resources. We are working directly with people who use drugs as part of an innovative “street lawyers” program that puts the power to defend human rights directly into the hands of those most affected. When our partners decided to develop a newspaper specifically for people in Russia who inject drugs, we provided assistance to the project so this community could be informed about their human rights.

In all this and more, we’re making important headway, as 2015 promises to be an exciting year.

Here’s just one example: Since 2010, together with Russian civil society organizations, we have been providing legal support to people who use drugs who have filed a trio of landmark applications against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights, challenging the country’s ban on methadone. In September, the Court accepted a stellar group of interveners, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, UNAIDS, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the European Opiate Addiction Treatment  Association (EUROPAD), Human Rights Watch, International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policy, Harm Reduction International, the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network, and ourselves. Although a decision is still some time away, we have provided an extensive record of evidence and solid legal arguments for the Court will hold the Russian government accountable for its denial of essential medical services for people who use drugs. Additionally, we would like to thank both our partners in Russia and internationally. We would not be able to complete our work on these cases without you. It is important to highlight those people, including people who use drugs, who are putting their lives at stake when fighting for their health and human rights in hostile environments, such as in Russian-speaking countries.

We are also committed to protecting the brave applicants who brought these OST cases to court, such as Ivan Anoshkin. When the Russian Prosecutor’s Service learned about his application, they started persecuting Project April, the only NGO providing Ivan with social support in his city. This sort of bureaucratic harassment is not unusual behaviour for Russian authorities when targeting NGOs. But in the spring of 2014, we successfully helped to defend Project April in court.

You can read more about all our cases in Russia here, and we’ll continue to update you on how the OST cases, among others, progress. With new HIV infections in Russia on the rise, we will continue to work with our partners to advance human rights, dignity and access to life-saving health services for people who use drugs in Russia and the surrounding region. Lives depend on our success.