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UNGASS 2016: from opportunity to opportunism

The Summit represented a big opportunity to end the "war on drugs",  but defenders of the status quo were able to abort aspirations of an effective transformation of the field. Español

National police patrol outside a court in Amatitlan, Guatemala. AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

According to the Real Academia Española dictionary, opportunity is understood as the existence of "appropriate circumstances" while opportunism refers to taking advantage of such circumstances to obtain "the greatest possible benefit". The recent (April 19-21) third United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) promised to be a propicious opportunity to rethink and reorientate the issue of illicit psychoactive substances, towards a different track from the current prohibitionist approach. However, a preliminary assessment shows that this was an opportunist summit in which defenders of the status quo were able to abort aspirations of an effective transformation of the field.

Prior to the conference, a combination of factors had called into question the international regime of illicit drugs (IRID). In 1990 and 1998 the first and second   United Nations General Assembly Special Sessions on drugs were held. The first UNGASS took place in the final days of the Cold War - with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe - and the deepening of the "war on drugs" - especially in terms of the US anti-narcotics policy with respect to Latin America.

The emphasis was placed on punitive measures centred on controlling supply: a focus was placed on drugs as a security issue. Briefly, UNGASS 1990 concerned the imposition of a coercive rationality: alternative and/or dissenting voices were few and were ignored; the United States (accompanied by many Eastern countries) seemed to depend on the ability to advance their version of prohibitionism against a Europe and a Latin America with limited will to coordinate a common perspective distinct from the former.

Soon it could be observed that the effective results of aggressive prohibition were meager. In this context, Latin American countries began to request a review of the predominant strategy, calling for policies more geared towards curbing demand. The 1998 conference showed, in a way, a compromise: notions such as a "balanced approach" and principles such as "shared responsibility" formed part of the discussions and the final statement. "Shared responsibility" contributed to partially depolarising inter-state controversy regarding the fight against narcotics, facilitated the achievement of some adjustments in anti-drug public policy and allowed a wider exchange between stakeholders located in the different countries affected by the development of the phenomenon of illicit psychoactive substances. However, it did nothing to change the essence of the anti-drug crusade. In reality, over time, this co-responsibility contributed to "normalising" the "war on drugs"; a war that continued to incorporate a few "carrots" to the traditionally used arsenal of "sticks".

In 2009, when the end-of-decade assessment was carried out for the fight against drugs, it was announced that a new UN Special Session would take place in 2019. However, and largely due to the positions of various Latin American countries (eg. Colombia, Uruguay, Mexico and Guatemala), the summit was brought forward. In this context, it is crucial to assess how they arrived at this new UNGASS and what the final resulting political statement shows.

One way to approach an understanding of UNGASS 2016 is by examining the positions of the states and societies in the field. The states have shown varied behaviour: in some cases, a relative consistency between internal measures and external positions, and in others, inconsistencies between them. For example, China and Russia have agreed, in fact, to practice and promote notoriously punitive approaches to the drugs phenomenon, both internally and externally. Something similar has characterised the discourse and praxis of countries in the Middle East. For their part, Uruguay, Czech Republic and Portugal have shown more permissive domestic and international approaches. In turn, the United States, as a federal nation, has shown in recent years a more willing attitude, with state decisions favorable to legalising marijuana, and it is inclined to effect some measures in line with a harm reduction policy, while in the international arena it was unwilling to sponsor major changes. A unitary country like Colombia, meanwhile, has very repressive laws and practices on drugs, but in the international arena promotes tranformations in the current paradigm.

Concomitantly, there are countries that, regardless of the ideological orientation of their current government, have opted for a high or low profile in discussions prior to the third UNGASS; as in the case of Mexico (high profile) and Brazil (low profile). In parallel, there have been some more moralistic or pragmatic in their approach to the issue of drugs internally, and have taken a similar line at the international level, such as in the cases of Sweden and the Netherlands, respectively. Also, while Europe might exhibit, in general, a less aggressive policy towards drugs, the fact is that already by 2014 it had warned that it was quite distant from the recent discussions on the subject; something that became evident in late 2015 and early 2016.

An important point is in the question of "new threats"; especially the interlinking of illicit drugs, organised crime and terrorism. That link was mentioned on various occasions in the various United Nations agencies. However, it reached the UN Security Council as a formal topic of debate in December 2009 in the context of the perceived challenge to international security generated by drug trafficking, at the initiative of African countries. This, in turn, was the result of growing concerns expressed, in particular, by West African nations. This type of approach that assumes a insidious nexus of different types of problems  was reaffirmed by the current UNODC Executive Director, Yury Fedotov. Later, in late 2014, the Security Council again took up the matter in the context of the simultaneous fight against terrorism and transnational organised crime at a time when the Council presidency was held by Chad. In essence, the violence resulting from the rise of drug trafficking in West Africa led the nations in the region to further emphasise the security dimension of the drugs issue.

As for international civil society, its role was very active and assertive in the discussions preceding UNGASS 2016. The vast majority of NGOs, experts and movements that have tracked preliminary meetings in Vienna (primarily) and New York, noted the incurred costs and misunderstandings of the prohibitionist paradigm and provided arguments and alternative initiatives. The tone and scope of the proposals was more reflective than challenging and more reformist than radical.

In essence, during the two years prior to the April 2016 summit there seemed to be broad international recognition – on the part of some states and many NGOs – of the fact that some sort of change was needed in the IRID. If we consider three possible types of change – re-structuring the system in its entirety, reformulating pillars and important principles or retouching certain aspects and practices on the issue of drugs – UNGASS 2016 was characterised by the latter: minor and sparse retouches in the context of an eventual opening to certain alternative measures at national level but not at the collective or global level. With this, an opportunity to take more ambitious steps was wasted.

The final document reflects this. As in the policy statements of 1990 and 1998, the third UNGASS statement reaffirmed the seeking of a "society free of drugs": a chimerical proposal that has proven to be (and will be) unachievable. Again, as in the second UNGASS, achievements (which have been very few) and challenges (still substantial) in the matter were recognised; an approach was agreed that is both comprehensive (in its ramifications for public policy) and balanced (in terms of supply and demand), although no part of it has been effected in recent decades; and it was claimed that international cooperation (mainly inter-state) will be brought to bear to face an increasingly complex and changing phenomenon. In turn, the value of the 1961, 1971 and 1988 conventions on drugs was stressed. In the 27 pages of text, no favourable mention is made towards any harm reduction policies; this is a more sensitive practice faced with the effects of drugs on individuals, families, neighborhoods and cities. Indeed, "organized crime" is mentioned nine times, the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime three times, and terrorism three times. Also, it is stated that states have "sufficient flexibility to develop and implement national drug policies according to their priorities and needs."

In short, there is no significant advances towards dismantling the prohibitionism inherent in the IRID, although eventual possibilities are considered in "accordance with the provisions of the three treaties of international drug control", to trial localised and specific experiments in a regulatory direction.

In this context, opportunism was manifest in preserving the status quo; something that, for different reasons and with different languages, Washington, Beijing and Moscow agreed upon. It is likely, in turn, that a posteriori of UNGASS 2016, a number of key governments in the West and the East, and even in the South will remark that the main current threat is transnational crime (for its link with the drug business and forms of terrorism and its bearing on state fragility and instability) and a consensus should be sought to counter it from a perspective that emphasises the security dimension. In other words, the "war on drugs" is considered in a certain way outdated, the "war on terrorism" will take over as inexorable, and the "war against organized crime" will become the leitmotif of a new crusade. The United States and the European Union have been stressing the development of criminality with global reach and its deleterious consequences. Russia and China, active warriors on drugs, are likely to lean in favour of repressive measures against organised crime though avoiding that it violates their sovereignty. The arguments about the rise of criminality and its relationship with risk caused by criminality in failed states are shared by many countries in Africa. If Latin America accepts, resignedly or reluctantly, that the issue of transnational organised crime is an issue of security and not governance, it will be, sooner rather than later, the backdrop for this "new" crusade that, it will seem, will take the place of the futile and onerous "war on drugs".

About the author

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is Full Professor and director of the department of political science and international studies at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. He was previously professor at the Universidad de San Andrés, also in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-9

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian es Profesor Plenario y director del departamento de ciencias políticas y estudios internacionales de la Universidad Torcuato Di Tella en Buenos Aires. Previamente fue profesor en la Universidad de San Andrés, también en Argentina. Se doctoró en relaciones internacional en la John Hopkins University school of advanced international studies. Residió en Colombia entre 1981-98.

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