Commission on Narcotic Drugs: So Much Agony, So Little Ecstasy

It is a lesson of history that at the end of established regimes, those left in power ratchet up the repression of dissent in their desperate bid to retain power. This phenomenon could be what we’re seeing at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), which met this March in Vienna. Or maybe it’s just that voices challenging the status quo bring out the worst in this particular UN body.

CND is the global drug policy-setting body of the United Nations. International drug policy is fraught with difficult issues that should be deliberated among sovereign states. But CND has long been a place where real deliberation and debate can almost never happen, partly because it works on what is euphemistically called a “consensus” system, which in this case means that any one country can kill a resolution or stop debate. The result is that debate on hard issues is rare, and resolutions of the CND by definition represent “least common denominator” positions on issues that deserve better.

The March 2012 session of the CND was seen by many of the NGOs and others present as showing more cracks in the armour of the prohibitionist status quo than ever before. In some ways this is true. After all, The Czech Republic said in plenary, in essence, that it’s time to throw out the dominant prohibitionist strategies and recognize them for the failure they are. Several Latin American countries said repeatedly that prohibitionism starts out being wrong because it neglects poverty as the root of drug use and ends up wrong because it tramples human rights. Even the International Federation of the Red Cross called for decriminalization of minor drug crimes and denounced the futile pursuit of a “drug-free” society that remains CND’s official strategy.

But these statements pass like mist because CND will not debate them. And civil society, which in most sessions is relegated to a statement or two after the member states have spoken, is especially marginalized in its proceedings. NGO statements this year were vetted by the CND Secretariat—that is, staff of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime—and anything that criticized in any way the positions of the Executive Director of UNODC, whose report to the CND is a big part of the proceedings, was ruled out of bounds. When NGOs complained of censorship, the CND chair said that member states were also asked to submit their statements for vetting ahead of time, but a quick informal survey of country delegates confirmed that this is not so. To add insult to injury, a senior UNODC staff member and the head of INCB lectured NGOs for their behavior, as though having dissenting views is impolite, rather than being the lifeblood of deliberative bodies.

The air of repression remains heavy around the International Narcotics Control Board, whose chairman, Dr. Hamid Ghodse, made statements during CND that represent a new low for this secretive body. Dr. Ghodse clung to the position that the UN drug conventions oblige INCB to be “neutral” when it comes to condemning even the most horrific human rights abuses committed in the name of drug control, including applying the death penalty for drug crimes. But the INCB in its reports is not neutral because it often publicly congratulates countries for repressive policing and even such practices as compulsory drug treatment, which the rest of the UN has now condemned. When an NGO representative suggested, respectfully, that the INCB is legally ill-advised in its interpretation of the conventions and human rights obligations, Dr Ghodse again felt compelled to lecture NGOs about polite behavior.

How long will the INCB and the CND Secretariat be able to dismiss civil society in this way? How long until real debate happens in this global drug policymaking body? How long will it be before the participation of civil society, especially including people who use drugs (continually referred to as “abusers” by INCB), is understood to be essential to moving toward the humane evidence-based, rights-based drug policy that even the most repressive states now routinely refer to in their public statements at CND?

The rhetoric may be improving, but there is a long way to go until the agony of repression in CND and the INCB is lifted. Member states have to be the engine for this change. Civil society—working not for one week in Vienna but for the whole year with national drug authorities—will be needed to ignite that engine.

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Another way of looking at this is that there are signs of change. The UN, like all large public bodies, will take time to change. The Red Cross statement, and the resolution on new substances are straws in the wind. The INCB is loosing its footing, and also its credibility, with each mediocre and pompous report it issues. The CND is now clearly dysfunctional, and to help it to reform NGO's and civilised states should keep up the pressure.

This is very much a glass half empty opinion, Joanne. I agree with Carel that change has been happening slowly but surely over the last few years. This year civil society's presence was stronger due in part to the civil society resolution that passed last year. Civil society presence is making the absurd positions of the INCB and the untenable contradictions of the senior staff of UNODC more public which can only be good. It's disappointing that you don't mention the overdose resolution that was introduced by the Czech's. This will have an impact on reducing deaths among drug users and is a positive public health resolution. You imply at the end of the post that civil society work with their national governments only one week a year which a silly assertion. Relationships established with national government representatives via the CND event are maintained throughout the year by many members of civil society.

Joanne,

I do have to say that I am inclined to agree with the two comments already published here. One the one hand, I share your evident frustration at the ritualised incantations that re-state faith in the immutability of the drug control conventions that takes place here each year. On the other, I do feel the slow movement of change; things can be said now that would have been quite impossible a few years ago, and one can discern in the defensiveness, the very insistence on contiuned faith in the conventions an undertow of recognition that there is change in the air.

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