UNGASS 2016: Weighing the Chances

September 23, 2015
Next year the General Assembly of the United Nations will put global drug policies on its agenda. Some people think this signals the dawn of a new era, a Spring of drug policy reform. I am more skeptical. In the global drug war, the end of winter is not as close as some have suggested. However, there are many advocacy opportunities NGOs should not miss.
I remember the excitement I felt when I first entered the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of the United Nations, as an NGO representative in 2005 – filled with a great many illusions. I thought I was about to participate in the most relevant meeting on global drug policies, with clear-cut debates on burning issues of drug control, and ideological battles over harm reduction, or the criminalisation of drug users. What I found there instead, was a meeting characterised by never-ending, dull speeches full of meaningless phrases recited like a religous mantra, and buearucrats engaging in philological debates over the formulation of resolutions that were ultimately empty of any possible progressive meaning. The real decisions and pacts are made behind closed doors, in a secret power game invisible to the public, without transparency or accountability. 

Get a taster of the UN drug meetings by watching our video, produced in 2009

I have attended eleven CNDs so far. The year when I lost my last remaining illusions about the UN drug control system, was 2009, when the UN assessed the implementation of its 1998 political declaration, which had set a target of eliminating, or significantly reducing, drug trafficking within ten years. The "Beyond 2008" process offered an opportunity for civil society to feed governments information about the stark reality of the war on drugs. We organised a protest outside the Vienna International Centre to voice our discomfort with the current system. The failure of the 1998 goals could not be more obvious, for anyone attending the meeting with the most basic logical skills and any knowledge of the drug situation. But instead of acknowledging their failure, member states congratulated each other for the non-existent achievements of the drug war, and adopted a political declaration which, essentially, repeated the same goal: to make the world drug-free. From that year on, we decided we would no longer invest so much energy, as an NGO, in trying to change the system by challenging the UN head-on - but that we could achieve more, by attending with a Press badge and a camera, asking the questions the corporate media, all too often, fails to ask, and thus revealing the system's unbearbly frustrating ignorance and inertia to the public. 

There is, once again, much excitement among drug policy & harm reduction NGOs these days, about the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, which will take place next April in New York City. This will be the first time that UNGASS will have discussed drug issues since 1998, when governments assembled under the now-notorious "A drug-free world – we can do it!" slogan. The situation has changed a lot since then. The so-called Vienna Consensus on continuing to fight the war on drugs is breaking down. More and more governments, especially in Latin-America, are questioning the status quo. Several states in the US have reformed their marijuana laws to allow recreational use - in breach of the central principle of the three drug conventions, which is to permit the use of scheduled drugs only for strictly medical or scientific purposes. Bolivia withdrew from the 1961 convention, and then rejoined, with a reservation on coca leaf, which it is now, as laid down in the Bolivian consitution, legal to grow and use. These changes give a certain hope for drug policy reformers that we are at the dawn of a new era, grounded in principles of public health and human rights. Some hope that even the mighty drug conventions may be amended or replaced by new conventions. Others, more cautiously and perhaps more realistically, hope that at least the forum will lead to a more flexible interpretation of the drug conventions, allowing experimentation in countries whose hands are currently tied by the treaties. And even leaving aside the treaties, many believe that a document with strong language on harm reduction and human rights would be very welcome.  
I think these hopes are very faint. We are simply not there. A warm breeze in February might signal Spring, but it can be easily followed by frost and snowstorms. I don’t share the optimism of those who believe that now that the marijuana legalisation wave has established a hold in the US, the whole global drug control system will fall like a domino. There is very strong resistance, among member states, to the idea of amending the drug conventions - and I am not only referring to Russia, China and most of the African and Asian countries, but also to the European Union. I have had the opportunity to serve as the core group member of the Civil Society Forum on Drugs, an expert group of the European Commission. When we consulted with government representatives, we soon realised that almost all EU states strongly oppose any change in the drug conventions. They are even highly suspicious of the call for a more flexible interpretation of the treaties, and there is no consensus among them about the decriminalisation of drug use. And the EU is one of the most progressive players in the big UN game – with a strong position on issues such as the abolition of death penalty, or forced treatment. Countries such as Russia and Iran still vehemently oppose any reference to human rights in the context of drug control, not to mention changing the letter and spirit of the conventions, which they regard as the worst form of blasphemy. And yes, it's true that the US no longer plays the role of world drug policeman - but that does not mean that it has become the champion of drug reform. The new doctrine of US narcodiplomacy, named after Ambassador William Brownfield, accepts a more flexible interpretation of the conventions, but that has not prevented the US from criticising other countries (Jamaica, for example) for reforming their drug laws. Even the most rebellious Latin-American countries do not dare to call for anything more than a "broad, open debate involving all positions and analysing all options", that would include discussing possible alternative interpretations of the treaties. 

Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that we will see an open debate in New York next year. Most member states would like to keep the debate focused on assessing the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration, and would not tolerate any diversion towards discussing alternatives. Amending the conventions or adopting a new political declaration is not on the agenda: UNGASS will instead adopt a "short, substantive, concise and action-orientated outcome document comprising a set of operational recommendations". The international community is now working on the zero-draft of this outcome document, which will cover five issues: drugs and health, drugs and crime, drugs and human rights, new psychoactive substances and alternative development. Last month, as an informal group of progressive European NGOs, we submitted recommendations to the EU, structured under these five thematic areas. Our recommendations included, among other things, the decriminalisation of drug use, reallocating much-needed funding from law enforcement to public health interventions, creating a mechanism to monitor the human rights impact of drug policies, and moving beyond conventional thinking on alternative development by regulating raw material markets. Unfortunately, only a few of our recommendations were reflected by the EU in its contribution to the drafting of the outcome document - none of those highlighted above. I am sure that the text of the outcome document, after going through the UN grinding machine, will be even weaker in the end than the EU’s position. 
I don’t say we should give up on UNGASS. It will be a great advocacy opportunity for reform-minded NGOs to raise awareness on the failed global drug war and its consequences, as well as on the gap between the reality on the streets and the self-congratulatory, self-deceptive interpretation of events at the UN headquarter. We should support those few governments brave enough to break the Vienna consensus and call for an open debate on alternatives. We must highlight the grave problems in many countries with respect to the human rights of drug users. Marijuana law reform is accelerating in the US - but in other parts of the world, among other groups of drug users, the situation is getting worse. In Central-Eastern Europe and Central-Asia, funds for effective HIV and hepatitis-C prevention interventions among injecting drug users are declining. International donors, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tubercolosis, are retreating from the fray, and national governments are reluctant to fill the gap by providing sustainable funding for harm reduction programs. Life-saving services are being cut back or closed down altogether, because of a lack of political support. More than thirty countries impose capital punishment for drug offences. Hundreds of thousands of drug users are detained in boot camps, where torture and starvation is an everyday reality. Millions are dying in pain because of the restricted access to controlled pain medications in developing countries. Farmers sink into poverty because of forced eradication programs. Prohibition-related violence is rampant in Latin-America. 
No, this battle is far from over. UNGASS represents an opportunity to bring all these issues to the attention of decision-makers and the wider public. In recent years, the UN drug forums have become more tolerant of NGOs, who often get the oportunity to take the floor at plenary meetings – something which very rarely happened ten years ago. That is a welcome change. Hopefully, hundreds of civil society representatives will attend the UNGASS on drugs. But they should not expect UNGASS to produce immediate change in the aforementioned areas. Change comes from local, national and regional politics. The UN system only reflects these local changes, very slowly and very reluctantly. The people who represent governments at UN meetings are often career diplomats and technocrats who have no real knowledge about drug policies. Educating these people about evidence and human rights is important, but we should not forget that the real decisions are made back at home, and government delegations are obliged to stick to their mandate. For this reason, I believe NGOs should focus more on advocacy targeting national governments at home. They can use the increased public attention around UNGASS to talk about the dark side of punitive drug policies - to name and shame those countries which fail to support evidence-based programs and violate human rights standards. It is worth noting that even within the stifling bureaucracy of the UN - and despite entrenched opposition from some of the more hardline national governments, agencies such as WHO, UNAIDS, UNODC and UNHRC have taken a brave stand to disseminate more progressive ideas, centred around respect for public health, evidence-based policies, and human rights. The UN treaties are not only about prohibition – but also about improving access to prevention and treatment. And the comprehensive package recommended by UN agencies includes harm reduction services. These are issues which must be widely-publicised. 
In the global drug war, the end of winter is not as close as some have suggested. I caution against having excessively high expectations from UNGASS: it will be more like a station on the road to drug reform, than a historic turning point. The systemic inertia encoded in the UN drug control system will not permit any sudden breakthrough to happen. But NGOs can, and should, use it as an advocacy opportunity to influence national and regional policies.

Read more about UNGASS on IDPC's website and on OSF's website!

Peter Sarosi