Why is the UN failing to solve the ‘world drug problem’?

On 19 April, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) meets to find a solution to the failed policies of the ‘war on drugs’. Our specialist roundtable discusses why the preparatory negotiations have been riddled with problems. Video (7:17).

Hannah Hetzer R Elliott Coletta A Youngers
18 April 2016

It will be looked at as the time the consensus was broken.

Hannah Hetzer: This is the first UNGASS that has happened in almost two decades and it’s a vastly different world to the one in 1998 when the slogan was ‘a drug-free world, we can do it’, and you had countries rallying behind that, president Clinton addressing the general assembly with his position of tough on crime, where dissent wasn’t really acknowledged. Now, 2016 is a different world. The idea of a drug-free world is still pushed by some countries but it’s no longer widely accepted throughout the UN system. And you do have this break where more countries have done something nationally and are willing to speak out about it. It is a different time, we can be more hopeful. There are more NGO actors, and I think this UNGASS will at least pave the way for future gatherings, for 2019. It will be looked at as the time the consensus was broken.

Richard Elliott: I think it’s fair to say that the process and the negotiations for the outcome document from the UNGASS have been less than satisfactory, in fact, they have been quite flawed. The fact they have been kept in the Vienna bubble, where only a minority of member states have the ability to effectively engage in the negotiations, is a real problem. This is a global challenge, all countries are affected by this.

So we are troubled but not surprised by reports that the Russian federation has been actively engaged in trying to block any sort of reasonable language about harm reduction, about human rights. Given the way Russia is playing politics with the drug issue domestically, for domestic political power purposes, it’s not surprising, but it is disappointing.

Coletta Youngers: So what we’ve seen is a process of  negotiating a document behind closed doors, with, frankly, bullying by some of the bigger countries, and where a lot of countries don’t have a say. From my point of view, the document lacks credibility and legitimacy whatever the outcome is, because the process has been so non-transparent, not open, and not democratic.

The process has been so non-transparent, not open, and not democratic.


Hannah Hetzer: One of the sad things happening at the UN is that all of these conversations around drug policy and the UNGASS are not being reflective of what is happening in the world, on a country level, on a city level, on a local level. We are at a really interesting time with drug policy, where over the last few years, the rate of change has accelerated, and you now have an incredible network of NGOs, of governments, of academics, great spokespeople who are talking about the need for new policies. And having worked in this, it feels like a really exciting time when you look at those changes. But we’re not seeing that reflected anywhere at the UN level.

You have your group of friendly countries trying to bring that on-the-ground reality to the UN, but it just gets lost in a lot of process-related issues. The status quo eventually prevails because of the consensus nature of  UN negotiations. The countries advocating for the status quo are able to say no to a lot of the changes.

We still have a long way to go when you look at the actual numbers and it’s those countries wedded to the repressive approach which sometimes feel like they are dominating the conversation.

Richard Elliott: Those countries that are ready and prepared to be guided by the evidence, by a concern for public health, a concern for human rights, should find the resolve, at long last, to move ahead with different approaches. A number of countries have done that, they remain an important minority, who’ve shown that it is possible to take a different approach, with very good outcomes. That you don’t need to hew blindly to the orthodoxy of the drug control regime, and its strict, narrow prohibitionist interpretations. That you can, in fact, jettison the ‘war on drugs’ and take a different approach. And you get better outcomes in terms of saving money, better protection for public health, better respect for human rights. More and more countries need to find the courage to do that, and show that the old system is damaging and broken, and we’re not going to be bound by it any more.

You can, in fact, jettison the ‘war on drugs’ and take a different approach.

Coletta Youngers: Regardless of the outcome document, I think that the UNGASS has achieved some very important things. One, civil society has been much more engaged and present than has been the case in the past, and we have been able to interact directly with governments that share some of our concerns, and have participated in a civil society task force. We have produced amazing material. That, in and of itself, has really helped to bring civil society together around the world, and that will continue after the UNGASS.

The other very important points are that the UNGASS has also served to bring in other UN agencies. Drug policy is the only issue within the UN system that is managed solely by basically two agencies that deal with drug policy: the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board. And no other agencies, not even health-related UN agencies are part of that discussion. And because of the UNGASS we have seen much more engagement on the part of the World Health Organisation, the UN Development Programme, the High Commissioner for Human Rights. And our challenge is going to be to keep them engaged after April of this year. And finally, the very fact that we’re having this debate is very significant. I’ve been working on drug policy for a very long time now. This debate was taboo, even when I started coming to the United Nations about ten years ago for these meetings and certainly in parts of the world like Latin America, until recently, you didn’t question the policy. We now have a bloc of countries that are saying, these policies aren’t working, and in fact, they may be doing more harm than good, and we need to be thinking about alternative approaches.

My feeling is that post-UNGASS, after April, the debate goes back to the countries, and that’s where I think we’re going to see some really interesting reforms in addition to those already taking place, starting on the ground. And ultimately, change is going to come from the ground up, not from the UN down.

This video 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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