Human rights alert at #COP10

The FCTC Secretariat is working behind the scenes to impose a narrow view on human rights and tobacco within the UN system and amongst countries (the Parties to the Convention).

At a recent progress meeting of the UN Non-Communicable Disease Task Force Lynn Gentile from the UN Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasised that a ‘Human rights framework is indispensable to how we respond to health challenges such as NCDs and mental health’.

Tobacco was a key theme of the meeting. It was reported that Task Force members had agreed plans for ‘ensuring [a] successful conference and meeting of Parties on the Tobacco Control Framework Convention in Panama..’. This is an example of how UN officials work behind the scenes to influence the outcomes of Convention meetings.

It is also reported that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the FCTC Convention Secretariat are finalising a set of policy briefs that will provide governments with information about how tobacco control impacts different sectors. These documents will likely be made available at the last minute and are not on the published COP agenda.

Under its current leader Adriana Blanco Marquizo, the Convention Secretariat has anchored  its work across the whole UN system including on human rights. It presents a narrow view of tobacco control to other UN agencies which may have little specialist knowledge about tobacco.

The Secretariat report to COP (FCTC/COP/10/15)  on how human rights intersect with the work of the FCTC is one-sided and thin. It includes statements about protecting individuals from tobacco smoke, mention of the right to life, and mention of the highest attainable state of health and the rights of children and tobacco growers. The Secretariat fails to mention another stream of human rights work within the UN system, in which access to harm reduction resources is a key part of the right to health.  International human rights law supports harm reduction, a case initially made by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and now acknowledged by many UN agencies who work on drugs and on HIV harm reduction. Access to safer nicotine products can be seen as part of the right to health in that people should be able to choose safer alternatives to smoking.

As Copwatch has been at pains to point out, tobacco harm reduction (THR) is, so far, absent from COP10. None of the documents nor reports intended to influence the Parties mention that safer nicotine products offer any opportunities for individual and public health. Safer nicotine products are presented as a threat to tobacco control, rather than as having potential to divert people from smoking and other risky tobacco use. 

The COP documents class all tobacco products together, and do not distinguish between high risk tobacco products and safer alternatives. We predict that the narrow human rights perspective proposed by the Secretariat will present safer nicotine products as much of a threat to the right to health as cigarettes. THR consumer advocacy groups are highlighting the right to access safer nicotine products. In an open letter addressed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Volker Türk – 52 civil society organisations highlight the urgency of adopting strategies based on harm reduction and the right to health (see here for the English version). They ask that the UN system recognises harm reduction as obligatory under the right to health and that he encourages the WHO to recognise the legitimacy of harm reduction in relation to smoking, to encourage states to adopt harm reduction policies, and to encourage the participation of consumer groups at COP. It will be interesting to see the reply.