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Reform Of UN Drug Conventions On The Agenda

Reform Of UN Drug Conventions On The Agenda

Transnational Institute

Press Release - May 23, 2002

Reform of UN Drug Conventions on the Agenda

On May 22, the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee in the United Kingdom has releas-ed its report "The Government's Drugs Policy: Is It Working?". In the report the Home Affairs Committee concluded "...we believe the time has come for the international treaties to be re-con-sidered" and recommended that "...the Government initiates a discussion within the Com-mission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways –including the possibility of legalisation and regulation– to tackle the global drugs dilemma." These conclusions are an important step for-ward in the debate on international drug control and the upcoming mid- term review of the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) due to take place in April 2003.

Summarising the report, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee Chris Mullin, said that the Committee basically said no to legalisation and yes to a rational drugs policy based on harm reduction, opposing zero-tolerance prohibitionism. "Attempts to combat illegal drugs by means of law enforcement have proved so manifestly unsuccessful that it is difficult to argue for the status quo," Mullin said. The Committee, in fact, recommends that the UK Government should look carefully at drug policies that have gained ground in The Netherlands and Switzer-land.

The report of the Home Affairs Select Committee will no doubt be the target of the cross--fire between prohi-bition-ists and legalisers, the two opposing sides in the drug debate. While one can argue about the exact conclusions and recommendations, the report is an important con-tribution to efforts at taking the debate beyond the current polarisation between prohibitionists and legalisers who have been domi--nant for so long, paralysing the discussions in endless trench warfare.

Till now, the UN Drug Conventions have been sacrosanct and blocked any change, much less open debate, in international drug control. The Committee concludes that there is "...sub-stantial ‘room for manoeuvre’ within the treaties for change” in the current drug control regime, because "...the treaties do not lay down specific control mechanisms within the basic premise of criminality of drug possession and supply” Nevertheless, the Committee recom-mends opening the discussion about the wisdom of the conventions.

UN paralysis

At the UN level, the polarisation of the global drugs debate has resulted in paralysis. The best opportunity to attempt a breakthrough will be at the mid-term review of the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) due to take place in April 2003 in Vienna. Originally, the 1998 UNGASS was to have re-assessed current anti-drug policies and hoped even to have gone so far as to challenge the wisdom of the UN drug conventions frame--work. Mexico had called for the convening of the UN General Assem--bly to create a moment of global reflection, ten years after the adoption of the third UN anti- drugs con-ven-tion, the Vienna Convention of 1988.

Given the continuous rise in consumption and production of illegal drugs during the 1990s, it had become clear that the drug control efforts of the last deca-des had largely failed. For many, the time had come to re-assess. Others, however, con-clu-ded there was a need to re-affirm the agreed principles and simply apply current policies with more force to achieve real results. The two visions clashed during preparations for the 1998 UNGASS on Drugs, blocking the oppor-tunity to use the moment for an open-minded re- assessment.

The United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) was drawn into the ‘re-affirm’ camp by Mr. Pino Arlacchi, who became Executive Director of UNDCP during the preparatory process of the 1998 UNGASS. He guided UNGASS towards its endorsement of deadline thinking and its re-affir-mation of the current repressive multi-lateral policy frame-work. The UN General Assembly in their political decla-ra-tion gave the UNDCP the mandate "…to develop strategies with a view to elimi-na-ting or signi- ficantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the canna- bis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008”.

The UNDCP these past years has suffocated attempts to open up the debate, censored critical remarks in its own publications, trumpeted doubt-ful success stories, and punished dissenting views among its staff. As for the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), it is clear the "re-assess" and liberal-minded countries are taking a very low profile. Careful not to fuel tensions that might endanger their carefully conquered ground for experimentation with harm reduction, they opt to keep the debate as general and diplomatic as possible, studiously avoiding open controversy in the CND over their policy directions.

The opportunity of April 2003

The 2003 mid-term review could be a crucial moment to move international drug control away from the unrealistic deadline thinking in which it has become entrapped. An interesting and positive sign is that Mexico has been elected by the CND to preside over that mid-term review and the preparations. In her opening state-ment to the 46th CND session, Mexican Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Olamendi, recalled some of Mexico's original spirit in saying in reference to 2008 deadlines, "in this period of sessions we will be very critical about these ambitious goals."

Given the fact that the CND has to set the guidelines for the preparations to the mid--term review it would be of utmost importance that the UK Government takes up the recom-men--dation of the Home Affairs Select Committee to initiate a discussion within the CND of alter-native ways –including the possibility of legalisation and regulation– to tackle the global drugs dilemma. The UK could lend its support to Mexico and like-minded member states like the Netherlands, Portugal, Germany, Brazil, Canada, Australia and others to press for an open debate to lift international drug control out of its present stalemate towards realistic and pragmatic policies based on harm reduction.

Another positive sign that may contribute to such an attempt is the recent change in UNDCP directorship. In March, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, replaced Executive Director Pino Arlacchi –because of mismanagement of the agency– with Antonio Costa. Little is known on Mr. Costa’s position in the drug debate. He has barely worked in the field, but hopefully can lead the UNDCP away from its narrow-minded prohibitionist focus, guide a process of internal reform and open up to challenging views outside the agency.

With the mid-term review, the UNDCP has an unique opportunity to rid itself of Mr. Arlacchi’s negative legacy and lead a process of evaluation of current drug control strategies. During Mr. Arlacchi’s reign seve-ral high-level officials left the agency in disgust over the propa-gandistic direction, the suffo--cating political culture and the misuse of funding. UN auditors were called in last year to investigate allegations of mis-management, prompting several donor countries to freeze their con-tributions to UNDCP pending the implementation of reform measures reques-ted by the auditors.

Mr. Antonio Costa not only has to put the mismanaged agency on its feet again and restore the confidence of the major donor countries, but also has to adjust its policy direction. Simply replacing Mr. Arlacchi is not enough, while the agency is still infested with his disciples and cronies. Mr. Costa cannot rely only on this inner circle at high positions for advice. He also has to urgently look outside the agency to former policy officials, NGOs and experts to gather different views on what is needed for the redirection of the UNDCP. The UK Committee’s report contains many thought-provoking suggestions that might stimulate Mr. Costa in the direction of a rational debate.

Harm Reduction also for production side

The UK Home Affairs Committee also concluded that "... harm reduction rather than retribution should be the primary focus of policy towards users of illegal drugs.” Unfor-tunately, the Com-mittee restricted its sug-gest-ions to drug consumption, and omitted harm reduction mea-sures for drug cultivation. In so doing, it fails to address the growing imbalance in the current direction of drug con- trol policy. While on the consumption side, there is a clear tendency –at least in most European Union countries and others like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Brazil– towards more lenient, rational and pragmatic drug policies; on the production side, to the contrary, there is an escalation of repressive approaches.

The UN Drug Conventions leave little ‘room for manoeuvre’ regarding cultivation of drug-linked crops, con-centrated in developing countries where thousands of peasants depend on illicit crops simply to survive. The last decade was marked by an intensification of chemical spraying of crops in Colom-bia, an attempt to develop myco-her-bi-cides to start a biological front in the War on Drugs, increased military involvement in drug control efforts especially in Latin America under US leadership. Right now, the UK is leading the international community in defining the appropriate strategy to assist the Afghan interim administration in the eradication of opium poppy, risking an escalation of internal conflict in Afghanistan.

The weakest links in the illicit drugs chain (drug consumers and rural populations involved in the cultivation of illicit drug crops) have suffered disproportionate negative consequences of drugs control policies. Drug control in drug producing countries has created harm to society at large, intensifying internal conflicts, corruption, human rights violations and environ-mental de-gra-dation. A harm reduction policy at that level is urgently required. With-out a common harm reduction strategy at the consumption and cultivation level, a broad inter-national coa-lit-ion for reform of the UN Conventions will be weakened and risks increasing the existing imbalance in drug control, leaving developing nations to bear the negative con-sequences.

For more information on UN drug control see TNIs website on United Nations Drug Control at:

The report of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee is available at: /31802.htm

Paulus Potterstraat 20
1071 DA Amsterdam - The Netherlands
Tel: + 31 20 662 66 08 | Fax + 31 20 675 71 76 | e-mail

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