The road to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016

Special Sessions of the General Assembly are called to review and debate a specific issue – in this case the “world drugs problem”
Steve Rolles (Transform)
Wednesday, January 28, 2015

UN forums in recent years have witnessed more and more governments expressing their frustrations with the failing global war on drugs. This failure goes way beyond just the goals of drug control systems to reduce illicit drug production and use. The key driver of calls for change has been the catastrophic negative impacts of the war on drugs on public health, human rights, development and security.

The combination of problems related to the violent illegal trade (which are fuelled by prohibition), militarised enforcement, and mass criminalisation and over incarceration have pushed the debate past a tipping point – governments and civil society groups alike have had enough, and are finally taking decisive action. The intensity of drug market-related violence and insecurity in Latin America has been acritical factor. It has reached such a crisis point that in 2012 agroup of heads of state – from Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala – called for the UN General Assembly to convene a Special Session as part of a wider collective call to “conduct deep reflection to analyse all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that prevents the flow of resources to organized crime organizations.”

Special Sessions of the General Assembly are called to review and debate a specific issue – in this case the “world drugs problem”. The last UNGASS on drugs took place in 1998, and whilst it was also instigated by Mexico with a more forward-looking mandate, it was effectively derailed by more conservative drug-war advocates and culminated in a pointless restatement of existing structures and a commitment to create a “drug-free world” by 2008.

This absurdity looks unlikely to be repeated again. Whilst the need for consensus means that substantive reforms to the international legal framework are impossible at this stage, we can certainly expect a lot more than 1998. The same forces advocating for the status quo remain amongst both member states and UN agencies – in particular the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (the lead UN agency on illicit drugs), the International Narcotics Control Board (the body that oversees states’ compliance with the UN drug treaties), and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (the historically conservative 53-member state body that is shaping the UNGASS agenda). However, drug-war dissenters are substantially stronger in number and political will this time around, and there is a clear sense that attempts to stifle debate on both the failings of international drug policy and the possibility of exploring alternative approaches will not succeed.

Transform is part of a broad coalition of NGOs organising around a shared reform platform, pushing for an open and meaningful debate both in and outside of the UNGASS. The aim is to modernise the broken global drug control system to make it fit for purpose. Ultimately, the overarching call is for the system to meet the needs of member states in the 21st century, and be able to finally deliver on its promise of safeguarding the “health and welfare of mankind” – rather than undermine it as the drug war so evidently has.

Various NGO networks – notably the International Drug Policy Consortium and a coalition of harm reduction groups coordinated by Harm Reduction International – have been planning UNGASS-related activities since it was agreed in 2013. Lining up with these efforts are the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s 2014 reform manifesto (which targets UNGASS) and a range of other projects being instigated by NGOs, affected populations and activist groups. These include Support Don’t Punish, the Count the Costs initiative, the Caravan for Peace and Justice with Dignity, and INPUD’s Drug War Peace initiative. At a meeting earlier this month in New York, 30 representatives of these NGOs and networks met to coordinate activities and strategise on how to maximise impacts of the emerging coalition. Everyone invited – including a range of representatives from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America – chose to attend a self-funded meeting, reflecting the obvious appetite for meaningful engagement with this UNGASS, and the need for strategic coordination.

Whilst there was evidently a range of agendas, interests and priorities amongst the many groups represented, there was also a clear reform platform that emerged, as well as a common desire to ensure that, first and foremost, the various options for reform remain on the agenda of both the UNGASS itself, and the media and political debate around it.
The strategy meeting ran for two and a half days, and included guest speakers who had worked on previous UNGASS events (both drug-related and non-drug-related), as well as UN ambassadors of member states, who shared their political insights. There were a range of concrete outcomes and collaborative work streams established that will be followed up in the coming weeks and months, so check in with the NGOs linked above for updates.

The meeting was followed by an informal gathering of social media managers from a wider group of interested human rights and public health NGOs, in which ideas for cooperative social media support around UNGASS were explored. There was also a unique opportunity for the overseas and out-of-town NGO representatives to hold a series of meetings with New York-based UN agency offices and country missions at the UN, and attend one of the regular meetings of the New York NGO Committee on Drugs. (The NYNGOC provides a platform for drug policy discussion and supports civil society organisations in engaging with UN agencies, member states, and other relevant UN bodies – in parallel with its sister organisation in Vienna, the VNGOC.)

Transform also co-organised an event at the UN in New York with México Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD) and the International Drug Policy Consortium, with the Missions of Mexico and Benin co-sponsoring. The event was titled “An agenda for the 2016 Drugs UNGASS: Ensuring meaningful Civil Society participation” (PDF) and had goals to “Review progress since the formal launching of the Civil Society Task Force (CSTF), as well as areas of opportunity for greater involvement of key communities, [and] promote a diverse and comprehensive agenda towards the 2016 Special Session, including meaningful participation within the official agenda.” The missions of more than 10 member states – including Brazil, India, China, Austria, Mexico, and Italy – were represented.

I chaired an opening session that featured Ann Fordham (IDPC), Elisa Rubini (VNGOC), Heather Hasse (NYNGOC), Aram Barra (Transform/MUCD), Simone Monasebian (UNODC), and Roberto Dondisch, the Mexican Ambassador to the UN. Discussion focused on how to make the most of the various formal mechanisms for civil society input into the UNGASS, but also reflected some of the tensions mentioned above – for example, when the Mexican Ambassador reminded the UNODC speaker that it is not the place of UN agencies to dictate agendas to member states.

A second session, chaired by Ann Fordham, explored some of the themes that needed to be on the table at the UNGASS: Diederik Lohman (Human Rights Watch) spoke about achieving adequate access to pain medicine, I focused on the importance of discussing emerging challenges to the global system (such as the trends towards decriminalisation and cannabis regulation), and service provider Howard Josepher considered the pressing challenges for modern drug treatment.

Audio of the event is available below, courtesy of Espolea.

Key moments in the run-up to the UNGASS

  • The annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna from March 9th-17th, which will ne longer than usual as it features a three-day UNGASS planning segment (9th-12th). Follow the action at the main CND meetings (and various intercessional) on the CNDblog maintained by IDPC
  • There will be a one-day UN General Assembly high-level UNGASS preparatory meeting in New York in May (probably May 7th – to be confirmed). This will be an opportunity for a wider group of member states to shape and finalise the draft UNGASS agenda produced at the CND in March
  • June 26th is the official UN ‘World Drug Day’, also known as ‘The International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking’ organised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – when they usually publish the annual ‘World Drug Report’. This day has also become a focus of global reform activism – most prominently the ‘Support Don’t Punish’ campaign. This year’s ‘Global Day of Action’ is also likely to see a number of other UNGASS-focused reform initiatives achieve prominence