Virtually – 18-19 October 2022 – UNODC HIV/AIDS Section conducted a 2-day informal expert group meeting on the role of law enforcement in public health, with a strong focus on regional perspectives, challenges and multisectoral responses. Over 130 law enforcement and community experts from 24 high-priority countries globally took part in this event. This meeting was the first step in planning and establishing an ongoing and sustainable consultative process between law enforcement and civil society at the global level through a broader UNODC Informal LE-CSO group.
The growing body of evidence suggests that the main factors underlying elevated HIV transmission and disproportionately low access to HIV services among key populations include, among other things, lack of supportive national policies, stigma and discrimination, harassment, violence, and extortion, including from state actors such as law enforcement, defence, and national security personnel. The recent COVID-19 pandemic excessively affects vulnerable populations and places considerable expectations and scrutiny on law enforcement representatives, including the increasing demand to respond to individuals in a mental health crisis, especially where police are not adequately trained, or where appropriate referral networks are not in place. Further challenges relate to the role of police in supporting harm minimization approaches regarding substance use and access to HIV and other healthcare services.
Taking into account the HIV and other public health challenges and increased global recognition of the vital role that law enforcement officials have in protecting and promoting public health, especially the health of diverse and vulnerable communities, it is essential to establish and sustain meaningful engagement and partnership with and between law enforcement and community organizations and representatives. The role of the law enforcement sector in national and global HIV response must be adequately understood, enhanced, and tailored to respond to specific needs and challenges and to ensure that everyone has the right to enjoy the highest attainable physical and mental health. To achieve that, UNODC facilitated an online meeting of law enforcement and community experts from 24 high-priority countries.
The two-day workshop included the country case presentations and panel talks on access to services for key populations and the role of policing and law enforcement in public health, but the main part of the meeting was devoted to facilitated group discussions. On October 18, public health, law enforcement and key populations community experts in four language/regional groups (Arabic, Spanish, Russian and English) discussed the police activities to promote rights-based and public health-oriented approaches to infectious diseases and HIV prevention, the challenges they face, and the perceptions of police work in their countries and regions. The following day, discussions primarily focused on planning the work of UNODC’s Informal LE-CSO working group. Speakers from South Africa, Vietnam, and Moldova presented best practice cases of the public health and public safety interface, creating an enabling environment for the provision of comprehensive HIV and health service packages for key populations, and the referral of people who use drugs from police to medical and social services.
All the participants highlighted the importance of the support that they are receiving from their entities (Ministries of Interior/Internal Affairs) in terms of professional safety and security in the workplace, guidance on how to behave during and after contact with key populations, addressing the occupational exposure to HIV/TB/HCV (including the PrEP, PEP, anonymous HIV testing and counselling services), and mental health services. The role of structural factors such as poverty, social and economic inequality and punitive legal frameworks in poor health outcomes and the importance of burnout prevention among law enforcement officers was also mentioned. Participants concluded that the great potential for resolving all problems discussed during the session lies in the joint work of the law enforcement, public health, and civil society sectors, as this improves the effectiveness of both the policing and health programs, as well as the image of police officers.
The event has highlighted the essential role that law enforcement agencies have in ensuring public health, and specifically HIV. The group discussions provided invaluable insights into both the good practices and challenges of law enforcement’s work with public health issues, as well as the problems key populations face in accessing health services. Ideas that were shared on the ways to enhance national and international cooperation between different law enforcement agencies, civil society and public health authorities will further inform the work of the UNODC LE-CSO Group.