The United Nations is supposed to be negotiating a solution to the ‘world drug problem’, and it’s not going well

Nearly 200 civil society organisations are expressing serious concerns with the preparations for the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs.

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
16 March 2016

United Nations Vienna. Andrés Rodríguez Seijo / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

United Nations Vienna. Andrés Rodríguez Seijo / Flickr. Some rights reserved.This April, the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs will convene in New York – seen by many as a possible breaking point for the global drug control system, and the first session to be held on this theme for two decades. The UNGASS is actually happening two years early, because the governments of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala have called for it in advance. This time, the UNGASS is expected to be a crucial moment in which dissenting countries could break the UN consensus over the ‘war on drugs’ and the model of prohibition, proposing alternative approaches towards harm reduction and decriminalisation instead.

The UNGASS is now perilously close to representing a serious systemic failure of the UN system.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the UN preparatory body for the UNGASS, is meeting in Vienna this week with the main focus of finalising the outcome document for the UNGASS. Nearly 200 civil society organisations, representing drug policy experts and involved communities, have released a statement, “Diplomacy or denialism?”, expressing serious concerns over the current negotiations around the outcome document, and the failure of governments in recognising the damaging consequences of the current prohibitionist drug control system.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon had previously called for the UNGASS to be an opportunity for a “wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options”.  But the civil society statement warns that “given the highly problematic, non-inclusive and non-transparent nature of the preparatory process, the UNGASS is now perilously close to representing a serious systemic failure of the UN system.” It goes on to say that, “by failing to engage in meaningful critique, new ideas or language”, the UNGASS outcome document “is at risk of becoming an expensive restatement of previous agreements and conventions.”

“This would represent a major failing for the General Assembly – and betrayal for the member states, UN agencies, civil society and public who have demanded so much more.”

This would represent a major failing for the General Assembly – and betrayal for the member states, UN agencies, civil society and public who have demanded so much more.

The civil society groups assert that the UNGASS process so far “has failed to recognise the lack of progress achieved by international drug control over the past 50 years” and “failed to acknowledge the damage caused by current approaches”, including “systemic human rights abuses, and continued use of the death penalty for drug offences.” The draft outcome document has not realised the need for a ‘harm reduction’ response in drug control policy, and proposals that the UNGASS establish an expert review of how the drug control system can be modernised “have so far been rejected”. Meanwhile, many contributions from civil society have been neglected, “most notably calls for the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences.”

Criticisms have fallen on the ‘Vienna consensus’ process, “dominated by the status quo forces”. Here, the conservative-leaning United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs “have actively sought to exclude innovative and forward-looking proposals from member states, other UN agencies, and civil society – perpetuating the same power struggles and paralysis that have hindered the Vienna debate on drug control for decades,” the civil society statement reads.

Furthermore, the statement says, "many member states from the global south, notably the Caribbean and Africa", do not hold permanent representation in Vienna, and are effectively shut out of the negotiations. “The process so far in the negotiations for some sort of outcome document has been less than satisfactory, in fact it has been quite flawed”, Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV AIDS Legal Network, told openDemocracy. “The fact it has been kept in the Vienna bubble, where only a minority of member states really have any ability to effectively engage in the negotiations, is a problem.”

Hannah Hetzer of the Drug Policy Alliance, concurs, telling openDemocracy: “One of the sad things that’s going on at the UN is that all these conversations around the UNGASS are not being reflective of what’s happening in the world. The status quo prevails because of the ‘status quo’ nature of the negotiations.”

The UNGASS is a unique opportunity to take a stand and demonstrate leadership for drug policy reform, as we simply cannot continue with the same failed approach.

All of this has “been compounded by the self-imposed reliance on consensus-based decision-making in Vienna”, the civil society statement argues. With ‘consensus’ as the overriding ideology in Vienna diplomacy, it is far easier to block change rather than bring change, and so the atmosphere is essentially biased against the reform agenda. Writing for openDemocracy's special partnership, on "the human cost of global drug policy", with the Center for Legal and Social Studies, Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium and Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute, have pointed to a particular bloc, “Russia, alongside several Asian and Middle Eastern countries”, as complicit in this, “playing hardball in negotiations.”

Speaking to openDemocracy in Vienna, the national drug coordinator for the Czech Republic, Jindřich Vobořil, said: “we know for many countries that international organised crime is capable of influencing government, but you don’t hear it here. Corrupt governments which don’t want to help their own people, and the individuals in government who benefit from the drug trade, is a major factor – though nobody wants to say it aloud, because we want ‘consensus’ here.”

The civil society statement concludes: “We call upon member states – especially those who have been shut out of the Vienna-based negotiations – to challenge the current draft of the UNGASS Outcome Document, to ensure the debate on its contents is not closed in Vienna, and to prepare statements expressing their disappointment and dissent at the UNGASS in April. We call on UN agencies, senior UN officials, academics, civil society, and networks of impacted communities to do the same. The UNGASS is a unique opportunity to take a stand and demonstrate leadership for drug policy reform, as we simply cannot continue with the same failed approach.”

You can read the full statement here.


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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