Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Forced Treatment Bill Points to Mixed Progress on Drug Policy in Uruguay

Uruguay's President Jose Mujica and its ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition have been widely praised for backing a bill which aims to regulate the country’s marijuana market. But FA lawmakers are currently debating a separate bill on forced drug treatment, an issue which has earned criticism from many of the same human rights and drug policy advocates who applauded the marijuana initiative.

Uruguay’s marijuana bill, which passed the lower house on July 31, is currently on hold as the Senate Health Committee goes through other items on its legislative agenda. Among the bills the committee is slated to debate is one which would allow judges to order individuals showing “severely altered mental states produced by narcotic drugs” to undergo compulsory treatment.

The forced treatment bill, which was based on a proposal of President Mujica’s, has been significantly altered by legislators. As Radio 180 notes, Senator Ernesto Agazzi -- a member of Mujica’s Popular Participation Movement (MPP) party -- has amended its language to avoid any police involvement in the process. The current version of the bill would charge a panel of health professionals with authorizing forced treatment cases, and would be overseen by a judge. According to Agazzi, “Now the law has a health care outlook, and not a repressive one.”

Despite the stated intention of the law, however, forced treatment is a contentious issue from a human rights perspective. It is frequently used as a method of cleaning the streets of “undesirable” social elements, individuals from society’s most vulnerable sectors who have no say in the terms and extent of their confinement. Critics of compulsory treatment, like UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, argue that it amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment, and in some cases torture. In March 2012, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime joined 11 other UN institutions in condemning forced treatment, calling for the closure of drug detention centers “without delay.”

On top of its controversial nature, forced treatment has been shown to lack effectiveness, with patients showing higher rates of recidivism than in voluntary clinical settings. As The Economist reported in April, experts say compulsory treatment initiatives in São Paulo, Brazil, are less successful than outpatient treatment centers.

In Uruguay, some of the biggest critics of the forced treatment measure are supporters of the marijuana regulation bill. These include the Institute for Legal and Social Studies (IELSUR) and the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ), both of which are vocal members of Regulacion Responsable, the civil society coalition backing the marijuana measure.  On Monday, the two human rights groups released a joint statement condemning the compulsory treatment bill as part of “an ongoing construction of more punitive and repressive policies” in Uruguay. In a previous interview with news magazine Brecha, IELSUR spokeswoman Gianella Bardazano accused the Frente Amplio coalition of politicizing drug policies in the country, asserting that the forced treatment bill was meant as a political counterweight to the marijuana bill (which remains largely unpopular).  “It seems [the FA] put a little of this, a little of that [in its security policies] in order to satisfy all sensitivities and not lose votes,” Bardazano told the paper.

Some in the ruling coalition appear to agree with this assessment. Last week FA Senator Constanza Moreira, who sits on the Health Committee, criticized the compulsory treatment bill as “repressive,” and told La Diaria that she was in favor of postponing it to take up debate on marijuana, an issue with wider support in the Frente Amplio. However, it seems this bid was unsuccessful. On Tuesday El Pais reported that the FA leadership has resolved that the marijuana regulation bill will not go to the Senate floor until mid-October.

News Briefs
  • As Chile marks the 40th anniversary of the military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power, the AP reports that protesters clashed with police in overnight marches in Santiago. La Tercera, however, notes that the Interior Ministry claims the protests were “much more calm” than previous commemorations of the coup. Chilean news site The Clinic marks the anniversary with a chilling report on the operations manual of the DINA, the secret police in the Pinochet regime, which explicitly authorized its agents to break the law, so long as they left no trace of their actions. CNN takes a look at lingering political division in Chile, and Democracy Now has an interview with Spanish attorney Juan Garces, an advisor of ousted President Salvador Allende who led the efforts to prosecute Pinochet.  
  • The Associated Press features a firsthand account of the coup by Sergio Carrasco, a retired AP correspondent and former editor who was in Santiago during Pinochet’s takeover. For another firsthand take on the coup, Adam Isaacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has a new podcast in which he interviews Joe Eldridge, WOLA co-founder and current chaplain of American University, who also witnessed the events of September 11, 1973.
  • Today’s New York Times features an overview of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s penchant for invoking conspiracy theories, noting that despite several recent warnings of secret schemes to destabilize his government, few have been arrested and none have been convicted in association with these plots.
  • UPI reports that the Colombian government is optimistic that its peace process with ELN rebels, which Vice President Angelino Garzon has said will start “in the coming days,” will be resolved quickly. Garzon told local media yesterday that “there is political will to sign a peace agreement this very year.”
  • In response to Venezuela’s official break with the American Convention on Human Rights, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has released a statement saying that the move “could have a very negative impact on the human rights situation” in the country. El Universal reports that critics of the withdrawal claim that it also violates the Venezuelan constitution, which recognizes the rights of citizens to appeal to international human rights organs. For a more detailed round-up of the criticism that the move has received from NGOs in the country, see Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
  • A new poll suggests that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has largely recovered from the toll that the wave of June protests took on her image. According to a new survey by the MDA polling institute, her personal approval rate has risen to 58 percent, up from 49 percent in July. Her administration’s approval rate is lower, at 38 percent, but still seven points higher than it was in July.
  • Noting that Latin America is “seeing its biggest wave of protests in years,” the Wall Street Journal has a broad take on the recent demonstrations in Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere, which the paper claims pose a major test for the region’s democratic development.
  • The BBC reports that Rio de Janeiro-based journalist Glenn Greenwald has been invited to testify to a Brazilian congressional committee on espionage next week. Local media report that Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, is also expected to give a statement, and the two are the first to testify before the committee. 
  • Guatemala’s Plaza Publica has published an in-depth look at the controversy surrounding a foreign mining venture in the municipality of San Rafael Las Flores, where mass anti-mining protests led the government to declare a “state of siege” in May. The Plaza Publica investigation reveals a community divided over the potential effects of mining in the area, which is exacerbated by conflicting accounts of the associated royalties given by government officials.