3 days in 10 Minutes

July 21, 2008

Report and videos from the Vienna global NGO forum on drugs

The Vienna NGO Committee organized a global NGO forum on the review of the implementation of goals set by the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 1998. More than 300 NGOs were invited to this Beyond 2008 forum from all regions of the world in order to discuss three objectives (NGO achievements, NGO involvement, drug policy principles) in three days (July 7-9, 2008). The goal was to produce a consensus statement on behalf of the global civil society to the high level governmental meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), to be held in Vienna in March 2009. It is unlikely that this high level segment will change a word in the current drug control conventions framing global drug policies (because member states declared so), but it is likely that they shall adopt a new political declaration about the future directions of the global drug control regime. The Beyond 2008 process is the only formally accepted chanel for civil society to influence the wording of this declaration.

Watch our video filmed at the global NGO meeting!


This is a 10 minutes video for those professionals, activists and decision makers who are more interested in international drug policy events. However, HCLU will also produce short, 1-2 minutes video messages for a broader audience (coming soon). We hope these will be used by NGOs all around the world to address local communities and media - online and offline. 

Please let us know if you would like to cooperate with us or need assistance in your local video advocacy activities (e.g. editing, subtitles)! 

An example for cooperation: our video about the speakers of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) has just been subtitled to Thai language and showned to Thai police officers by the Asian Harm Reduction Network (AHRN), have a look!

Just say no to transparency?

We believe it has a crucial importance that the procedure of reviewing UN drug control activities should be transparent and accountable for civil society and for general audience as well, therefore HCLU - as an official NGO delegate - went to Vienna not only to participate in the discussion, but also to film the global NGO forum and to interview  participants about their positions. However, it appeared that the opponents of drug policy reform don't really like transparency. First, most ardent prohibitionists from the U.S. simply refused to give us an interview. Second, we were banned from filming the plenary. 

Before the meeting the organizers granted permission for us to use our camera, but on the second day the director of the Vienna NGO Forum asked us to stop filming at the plenary, on the request of an unnamed NGO that was concerned by being filmed. I think it’s no surprise if I tell that this NGO was the Partnership for a Drug Free America, known for its close governmental links in the United States, as well as its expensive but ineffective anti-drug ads. After listening to their presentation and comments, I'm not surprised that they don’t want to be seen on video – especially not because it was obvious from the first moment that they had an intimate working relation with a governmental observer, June Sivilli from the anti-drug office of the White House (ONDCP). ACLU blogged this issue earlier.

War of the worlds

It has already become obvious since the regional discussions from last year that the NGO community is deeply divided in how to address governments about the future of global drug control policies. Almost every regional forums followed the same screenplay: two fractions were formed and engaged in fierce debates about the same controversial issues like abstinence vs. harm reduction, human rights vs. crime prevention, public health vs. public security, regulation vs. prohibition etc. Of course these goals, terms and interventions sometimes do not exclude but supplement themselves in an integrated drug policy, but even a small change in the expression and wording of these terms can mark a huge difference in mentality and views. The global forum was also characterized by the fight between these two sides:

1)    Prohibitionists, a small but vocal minority led by the U.S. based Partnership for a Drug Free America and their Australian and European allies. They claimed the past 10 years of UN drug control was a success story, therefore they denied the need for any changes in the status quo, except for more commitment and budget to enforce current drug policies. They prioritized abstinence-based interventions and primary prevention and opposed the greater involvement of people who use drugs in decision making, as well as NGO involvement in governmental delegations to the CND.

2)    Reformers, a much more diverse but also very vocal group, ranging from radical legalizers (e.g. LEAP, ENCOD) to moderate harm reduction reformers (e.g. IDPC, OSI) and user activists (e.g. INPUD). They criticized the international framework of drug policies as an outdated and ineffective system, called the goals set up by the UNGASS in 1998 unrealistic and claimed their implementation was a fiasco. They highlighted the manifold unintended consequences of drug control efforts, like human rights violations, organized crime, corruption and public health disasters. This group called for a meaningful involvement of people who use drugs, as well as a greater emphasis on harm reduction interventions in drug policies.

Negotiating peace

Before the meeting I was wondering what is more difficult: to draft and adopt a consensus statement for a forum with NGOs from so different ideological backgrounds, or to summarize and present the statement itself in 10 minutes next year at the high level segment by Michel Peron, the Executive Director of the Vienna NGO Committee. I have to confess that Mr. Peron made an excellent job as the chair of the plenary discussions, he guided the meeting towards a consensus despite a constant war to the knife on the wording of the paragraphs. Even if nobody is fully satisfied with the agreed text of the statement, everybody can live with it. Both sides made very painful compromises: prohibitionists had to accept a wording full of human rights and harm reduction language, while the reformers had to give up a clear call for a greater involvement of people who use drugs.

Now the question is if governments will really listen to the voice of civil society. One thing is sure: HCLU will do its stuff to raise awareness on this issue and bomb the public with its video messages and other advocacy materials.

You can also help us to do so: please distribute our videos in your local community, send your feedback to your local government and support HCLU with your donations!

Thank you.


Posted by Peter Sarosi