After an insubstantial UN drugs summit last month, what’s left for Latin America?

The global crackdown on drugs has spurred violence akin to war in some Latin American countries. But the world’s historically powerful countries are still reluctant to confront a problem they don’t recognise as their own. Español

Luciana Pol
20 May 2016

Counter-narcotics officer, Colombia. Fernando Vergara/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Counter-narcotics officer, Colombia. Fernando Vergara/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs was held this year at the request of three Latin American countries − Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala − who demanded an urgent response from the United Nations system to the region’s crisis of violence. Today, Mexico and Central America face levels of violence and death akin to war, largely due to the dynamics generated by the trafficking of illicit substances towards the large markets in the north. With the support of other countries in the region, they perceive the international drug control system as part of the problem, and asked the international community to assess the system's functioning and think of more effective alternative schemes.

Hardly any of this actually took place at the UN special session.

The countries that spearheaded the debate had to fight tenaciously during the preparation process to achieve any mention in the official documents of the social harm and violence suffered by some regions – despite the fact that all parties agree these dynamics are associated with a market that has been global since its inception, and that the prohibition regime is intimately related to the forms the market has taken. The world's historically powerful countries are still reluctant to discuss a problem that they do not recognise as their own, even though the large consumption centres for these illicit goods are located in Europe and North America.

The world's historically powerful countries are still reluctant to discuss a problem that they do not recognise as their own.

The international system showed a limited capacity for self-assessment. The framework of the international drug control conventions was defended dogmatically, in lieu of promoting a debate and objective analysis of their impacts and their operating principles, such as the prohibition of substances. There was scarcely any recognition of the drug problem as a highly innovative market able to adapt to changing circumstances. This view would require much more dynamic responses from governments and the international system, like those related to economic issues and state intervention strategies from a social perspective.

To some extent, the fact that the negotiations to define the UNGASS outcome document took place in Vienna − the same place that the international control policies were designed − seriously compromised the ability to evaluate the system. Since no one can be both the judge and the judged, drug agencies need to recognise the essential role of an external evaluation of the policies implemented to date.

This was the objective of the decision to hold the special session in New York, along with the inclusion of the 140 states not represented in Vienna. Also, during the preparatory process for the special session, several UN agencies were asked to issue their technical opinion on topics such as the relationship between drugs and development policies, the impact of drug policies on human rights, their impact on specific populations like women and the implications for health including HIV, among others.

The technical analyses and recommendations of these agencies found that some of the policies promoted by the drug conventions, such as the criminalisation of consumption, have resulted in a barrier to access health services and a violation of individual rights. It has also led to the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of consumers around the world, increasing the global incarceration rate.  

For the most part, the UNGASS outcome document ignored the technical opinions of the different UN specialised agencies. The negotiations conducted by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna excluded technical views prepared by the human rights system and by other agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) or UNWomen.

The UNGASS process has prompted reflection on the lack of cohesion among the branches of the United Nations system on drugs and crime, health, human rights and development. In fact, one of the paradoxical results of the special session was that this problem was clearly exposed. The international regulatory framework on drugs is at the core of the issue and steps must be taken towards its revision.

The UNGASS process has prompted reflection on the lack of cohesion among the branches of the United Nations system.

Other reflections that emerge from this process relate to international politics, the concentrated weight of specific actors and regions, and how difficult it still is for countries in the south to have their views prevail in a global debate.

At a country level, numerous statements were issued during the special session in support of moving towards a more balanced response on drugs. Countries in every region expressed their desire to reduce the punitive components of state responses and strengthen the components of health, within a framework of respect for the rights of individuals. Transforming this perspective into real policies would require a very substantive change in budget allocations, the overall approach, and the outcomes.

In the case of Latin American countries, the strong association between drugs and crime as well as current drug laws have aroused strong punitive reactions, which should be reviewed. Changes should aim to reverse the trend of arresting and incarcerating people for consumption offences, or for nonviolent low-level drug crimes. The same follows for the impact that the fight against drug trafficking has had on security policies. In extreme cases, such as Mexico, this has led to the militarisation of domestic security tasks and the use of the armed forces. The widespread and extremely grave human rights violations resulting from this policy demand a radical change in the orientation of national policies, and the state's recognition of these crimes. In countries with extensive areas planted with coca, poppy or cannabis, policies of forced eradication and fumigation are examples of the daily violations of the rights of growers and peasants that must be stopped.  

On the matter of drugs, although it would seem that the taboo has been broken, this next period will be one of intense internal work for countries in the quest for coherence. And social organizations and societies must continue to underpin these changes. 

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.

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