When the U.N. announced it would hold its first comprehensive drug policy conference debate in 18 years, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told member states the conference, held this week in New York City, would be an opportunity to “conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options.” It appeared the global governing body was finally willing to reconsider its failed goal of eradicating all drugs. That quest, established at the last drug policy special assembly in 1998, has driven the U.N.’s ongoing global war on drugs and, as in other nations, fostered seemingly endless violence, corruption, and authoritarianism.
Yury Fedotov, the director of the U.N.’s office on drugs and crime, said this week, “The emphasis on the health and welfare of humankind — that is the founding purpose of the international drug control conventions,” apparently indicating change was inevitable.
However, before the conference, deemed the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS), even commenced, the U.N. failed to keep its promise to implement meaningful reforms. It now faces widespread criticism amid accusations its proposed solutions are tepid reiterations of draconian frameworks.
Though UNGASS convened from Tuesday to Friday in New York this week, the preparatory process for the event began months ago. In March, the U.N. released a draft of its “outcome document” for the UNGASS conference, which had been negotiated by officials in Vienna and was adopted on the first day of the conference this week. Criticisms of the document, which stipulates reforms, began to mount ahead of the multi-day conference.
In an open letter addressed to Mr. Ban, dated April 14, thousands of individuals expressed concern at the resolution. The signatories included authors, human rights activists, celebrities, academics, doctors, entrepreneurs, politicians including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and former heads of state from around the world. Noting “a wide-ranging and open debate” had not happened — “at least within the confines of the United Nations” — they called on the Secretary-General to guide the special assembly toward progress.
“Humankind cannot afford a 21st century drug policy as ineffective and counter-productive as the last century’s. A new global response to drugs is needed, grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights,” the letter stated. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, which published the original letter, copies of it were confiscated by U.N. security on the first day of UNGASS.
Even so, the sentiments of that letter had already been echoed elsewhere.
“Given the highly problematic, non-inclusive and non-transparent nature of the preparatory process,” the statement said, “the UNGASS is now perilously close to representing a serious systemic failure of the UN system.”
The declaration expressed concerns “the process [of crafting the document] has been dominated by the status quo forces of the Vienna-based UN drug control apparatus.”
“These Vienna institutions have actively sought to exclude innovative and forward-looking proposals from member states, other UN agencies, and civil society,” the statement complained, referencing the exclusion of Caribbean nations who do not have permanent seats at U.N. institutions in Vienna. Further, the statement noted “a handful of vocal and regressive countries can block progressive language,” likely referencing nations with prohibitive drug policies, like Russia and Egypt, who exerted influence over the drafting and negotiation process.
For this reason, Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson, a long-time opponent of the drug war and signatory to both statements, said, “UNGASS is looking more and more like it will be a political farce that lacks the teeth…needed to write a new chapter in global drug policy.” Indeed, as the Guardian explained, it maintains “the prohibitionist framework which criminalizes all drug use that is not for medical or scientific purposes.”
Ultimately, the March joint-statement said the U.N. document was “out of sync,” arguing “the draft simply reaffirms the current approach and is devastating in its failure to acknowledge the damage of punitive policies.” In particular, they complained their suggestions — notably, abolishing the death penalty for drug offenses — were ignored. Some advocacy groups did praise the document’s acceptance of opioid treatment programs, though the document did not mention “harm reduction” by name.
The statement urged representatives from U.N. member states to “prepare statements expressing their disappointment and dissent at the UNGASS in April.”
Indeed, that is exactly what happened this week. Though the stipulations of the UNGASS document are all but established, representatives from countries around the world spoke out against it — and policies that preceded it.
Mexican President Peña Nieto criticized the UNGASS agreement on Tuesday, the first day of the assembly. “So far, the solutions [to control drugs and crime] implemented by the international community have been frankly insufficient,” he said, as reported by the Guardian. He also announced Mexico would legalize cannabis for medicinal use, saying, “We must move beyond prohibition to effective prevention.”
Colombian president Jimmy Morales argued, “People – not substances – [should be] at the center of these policies.” Former Colombian president César Gaviria Trujillo called the U.N.’s goal of creating a “society free of drug abuse” was “unrealistic, totally naive,” and “almost stupid.”
A Norwegian delegate said, “The [negotiation] process failed to gather a consensus on steps Norway views [as] essential. Norway intends to be a clear voice for a more progressive approach.”
Officials from multiple countries, including Bolivia, Switzerland, Canada, Uruguay, Jamaica, the Czech Republic, and even the United States, also expressed support for a more tolerant, health-based approach to drug reform.
Though some nations, like Cuba, Iran, and Indonesia, pushed back, a representative for Indonesia was widely booed by the crowd when he suggested the death penalty was an “important component” of its drug laws. Cuba reiterated its goal of achieving a drug-free society — in spite of statements from others pointing out the ignorance and futility of that goal. Embarrassingly, the Guardian reported, “a scientific panel organized by the Russian Federation veered away from widely accepted science when a Russian medical representative called methadone, used for opiate addiction treatment, and heroin the “same narcotic.”
For all of the U.N.’s claims it supports humanitarian reforms to drug policy, the UNGASS conference appears to amount to nothing more than a perpetuation of existing policy with small modifications to appease proponents of reform. As Branson said, “The process was fatally flawed from the beginning.” He added it might already be too late to save the current system.
Amid overwhelming criticism, the new U.N. guidelines received at least some praise. Joanne Csete, a drug policy expert and associate professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, told ABC News, “I think the more explicit recognition that health and social services be part of balanced drug policy [is]… a small step in the right direction given that it played an almost invisible part of the 1998 meeting.” However, she also noted, “Not much changed and I don’t think anyone expected much to change.”
Though the UNGASS conference was ultimately a disappointment for activists hoping to spark tangible change, countries around the world continue to move forward by enacting more humane drug policies. Many have already vowed to fight for more meaningful reforms at the next meeting in 2019, the Guardian reports.
As Branson said:
“I hope that their dissenting voices will be the real news to emerge from New York, together with the thousands that have already stood up and called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to set the stage ‘for real reform of global drug control policy.’ It’s the only way forward.”
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