Within the so-called “UNAIDS Family”, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is the “lead co-sponsor” on the pivotal issue of HIV and injecting drug use. This role comes with huge responsibilities – of the estimated 30 million people living with HIV around the world, around 10 percent are people who inject drugs. Unsafe drug injecting is estimated to account for a third of all new HIV cases outside of sub-Saharan Africa, and is driving the epidemic in regions such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

In 2011, the world’s governments gathered at the UN General Assembly in New York and agreed a Political Declaration on HIV – including a bold target to halve the number of new HIV infections among people who inject drugs by 2015. But not enough has changed since then to even come close to meeting the target. Drug policies, laws and practices around the world remain disproportionately punitive and people who use drugs find themselves stigmatised, abused, incarcerated and even killed as a result of their behaviour. At the same time, the funding for (and coverage of) essential health services for this population remains woefully inadequate.

As a result, a coalition of key NGOs – including IDPC, Harm Reduction International, the International Network of People who Use Drugs, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, and the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network – has been applying pressure on UNODC to demonstrate improved leadership and direction in overcoming these global barriers. Frustrations among civil society organisations have been growing over several years, with few opportunities for meaningful engagement with UNODC and major concerns over the positions and statements coming from Vienna.

These advocacy efforts came to a head at the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB) meeting in December 2012, a forum widely renowned for its commitment to engaging civil society and key affected populations in the global HIV response. Supported by resources prepared by IDPC and others, the International Network of People who Use Drugs led the charge at PCB – calling into question the performance of UNODC and highlighting the lack of leadership towards the 2015 target. Concerns about the structure and focus of UNODC were also raised by key governments, adding to the pressure.

As a direct result of this work, Aldo Lale-Demoz (UNODC’s Global Coordinator for HIV/AIDS) invited a selection of key international and regional organisations to a high-level meeting at the UNODC headquarters in Vienna. The meeting aimed to mend broken relationships, establish a platform for future engagement, and develop a clear action plan for the coming two years to address the concerns that had been raised. The meeting was very positive, with a long list of actions and targets agreed for both UNODC and the civil society partners. These include: clear statements from UNODC in support of harm reduction; better coordination between the HIV, law enforcement and justice sections of UNODC; resource tracking research; more work on overdose and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs; and reviewing the UNODC Model Laws on drug control. It was also agreed that the group of NGOs would meet regularly with UNODC to check on progress and communicate any issues.

There is hope now that a corner has been turned following years of advocacy and exasperation – but the real proof will be in how the action plan is delivered in the coming months, something that IDPC and partners will be working hard to monitor and support.

Have a look below at the UNODC meeting report.