The INCB met last month in Vienna, and at the top of its agenda was the election of new Bureau members and a new President. Dr Viroj Sumyai, a Thai citizen, was elected President for a term of one year.

Following the tenure of former president Mr Werner Sipp, who was a very humane and in many ways progressive leader of the INCB, driving forward its agenda toward public health and human rights, there is some concern amongst progressive civil society groups that Mr Sipp’s replacement may be inclined to undo the positive reforms that the Board has undergone in recent years. While obviously it is early days, the election of Dr Sumyai has done little to allay these anxieties.

Dr Viroj Sumyai. Credit: INCB

While the new President no doubt possesses the necessary technical knowledge for the position, his views in the recent have been highly questionable. He was noted for his insistence on the INCB’s ‘neutrality’ in relation to the death penalty for drugs offences. For example, in the Bangkok Post of 29th February 2012, an article appeared that discussed the death penalty for drugs offenders.  In the article, entitled ‘UN drugs agency won't take stand on swifter executions’, it was reported that, ‘The agency says it neither supports nor opposes the death penalty for drug-related offences’. This was reinforced by a quote from Dr Viroj Sumyai, who stated that, ‘We are an impartial body and respect the rule of law and jurisdiction of countries.’

This is in contrast to the views of Mr Sipp, who has repeatedly spoken out against the use of the death penalty, for example, in the cases of Indonesia and the Philippines. Indeed, the last years have seen the INCB stabilise its more progressive stance, and it is probably unlikely that the advent of a new President will drive it to regress to its former role as the dinosaur of the drug control regime. Nonetheless, it is important that civil society continues to monitor the Board’s discourse and actions.

Dr. Sumyai set out three key priorities for his term as President of the Board, and these suggest a continuity with Mr Sipp’s leadership:

  • improving access to and availability of opiate pain medications, especially in low- and middle-income countries;
  • working with governments towards improving the availability and quality of treatment services for people dependent on drugs; and
  • encouraging application by States of the principle of proportionality in responding to drug-related crime, particularly through using alternatives to imprisonment, such as treatment and rehabilitation.

The other elected members of the INCB are Professor Sevil Atasoy and Dr. Galina Korchagina, who have both served on the Board in the past, in addition to two entirely new members,  Luis Alberto Otárola Peñaranda and Dr. Cornelis de Joncheere. The latter was formerly Director, Department of Essential Medicines and Health Products at the World Health Organization in Geneva; he entertained cordial relationships with civil society and can be relied upon to advocate for public health.

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