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What hope remains for drug policy reform at UNGASS?

The inability to recognise the reality of the current situation worldwide is the biggest failing of the ‘outcome document’ for the UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem. Español

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United Nations, New York. Flickr/United Nations Photo. Some rights reserved. United Nations, New York. Flickr/United Nations Photo. Some rights reserved.

The Fifty-Ninth Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) took place from 14 to 22 March 2016 in Vienna. This year’s meeting included a preparatory session for the forthcoming UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem and agreed an ‘outcome document’ which sets out what will be negotiated at UNGASS.

The outcome document from the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem is out, before the meeting it summarises has happened. The product of another UN late-night, last-minute deal, it was finally agreed at the end of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, which has been overseeing the UNGASS preparations. You can read it in its full glory here (the outcome document itself is the annex starting on page 2).

The innovation of adopting outcome documents before the meeting has happened is a worrying and potentially self-defeating development.

The outcome document runs to 23 detailed pages and is as notable for what isn’t there as for what is. It repeats some bad practices that have been increasingly picked up in UN resolutions in recent years, including language stating that measures should be enacted “in accordance with national legislation” (only if the country agrees to it) and “as appropriate” (only if you want to).

Additionally, the innovation of adopting outcome documents before the meeting has happened, first seen at the 2015 UN Crime Congress, is a worrying and potentially self-defeating development. Not only does it mean that any inputs at the meeting cannot be added to the document, but it also makes it harder for diplomats to justify participating in the meeting at all (why go if there’s nothing to decide?), which will damage the authority of the meeting itself.

Those seeking explicit references to harm reduction or the death penalty will be disappointed (though several harm reduction methods are mentioned), while mentions of human rights are fairly limited: just five mentions in operative paragraphs, mostly general, optional or aspirational. Even a statement of fact that different countries have different approaches to the death penalty, with some permitting executions for drug offences and others considering it inappropriate and disproportionate, did not get in. Much of the language and approach reads like a re-run of previous inter-governmental declarations on drugs.

Much of the language and approach reads like a re-run of previous inter-governmental declarations on drugs.

And this is perhaps the biggest failing in the outcome document: that it fails to recognise the reality of the current situation worldwide. While some countries are keen to continue the ‘war on drugs’, focusing on prohibition of narcotics, seizures of drugs and harsh prison sentences for those possessing, trafficking or using them, others have – through experience – grown weary or disillusioned with this approach. Instead, they are looking to minimise the harms done by drugs and state responses, and to deal with drug use primarily as a health not a crime issue. There is clearly a debate to be had and experiences to be shared.

But the outcome document, earlier documents and the process have not reflected this. The chosen method, of forcing an appearance of consensus where in reality one does not exist, has been roundly condemned by around 200 NGOs and risks damaging the legitimacy of the CND and causing differently minded states to negotiate an alternative outside the formal UN setting. This has happened before: the treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions were developed outside formal UN processes after the UN Conference on Disarmament became paralysed by the need for consensus.

For those wanting a fuller review of the world’s response to drugs, the UNGASS now increasingly looks like a step on the road to the next review in 2019, rather than the major change that was hoped for.

Originally published by Penal Reform International.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.
About the author

Oliver Robertson is a Quaker working on issues of peace and human rights. He specialises in criminal justice matters, particularly the death penalty and children of prisoners, and on climate change. 

Oliver Robertson é um Quacre que se dedica sobretudo ao estudo da paz e dos direitos humanos. É especialista em temas penais, sobretudo aqueles que envolvem a pena de morte e os filhos de prisioneiros, assim como alterações climáticas. 


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