2016 UNGASS, Drug Law Reform, Human Rights

After UNGASS 2016: Disappointment and resolve

We have come accross an incredible amount of fantastic articles, blog posts and other pieces on the UNGASS 2016. In the following lines, we try to summarise the key takeaway messages emerging from these. Please click on the links to access the original articles. An extensive media coverage list can be found at the bottom of this blog post.


For reform-oriented civil society, UNGASS 2016 has left a bittersweet aftertaste. On the down side, the opaqueness of a process supposed to embrace ‘open, inclusive and wide-ranging discussions‘ was disappointing and frustrating, with most reformist organisations agreeing that it has been ‘difficult to have meaningful impact into both the document and the proceedings‘.

During the preparatory process ‘non-governmental organizations were literally shut out from key meetings‘. Euphemistically called ‘informals’ or even ‘informal informals’, these meetings are the main locus of negotiations, where ‘language is crafted and agreed upon’. For some, this exclusion of civil society and UN agencies alike, and ‘lack of transparency’, only benefited ‘those with a vested interest in maintaining the current state of affairs’, in particular prohibitionist states such as Russia and Egypt.

Yet obstacles to participation in Vienna paled in comparison to ‘the blatant censorship and bureaucratic exclusion that confronted us at New York’s UN headquarters’. Civil society participants were ‘subject to Kafka-esque attempts to limit access to the actual debates’, with ‘the UNGASS leadership [changing] its rules about accessing meetings daily’. Representatives were obliged ‘to stand in line for hours to get in’ or simply be ‘denied entry to the UN on the spurious grounds of “heightened security risks”’.

Photo by Steve Rolles (Transform)

Despite these formidable hindrances, there is a sense of ‘pride‘ in the reformist camp as it managed to coalesce into an ‘unprecedented mobilisation’ of civil society, ‘powerful and unified over key issues’. Once ignored, the idea that the global drug control regime is failing to deliver was echoed by the majority of declarations from civil society, UN agencies and government delegates alike, who ‘turned their backs on overly repressive approaches’ and recognised the ‘need to experiment with alternatives‘.

Much of the frustration has surrounded the adoption of the UNGASS Outcome Document, which ‘does not represent a real break with the past, but rather business-as-usual, with some shifts in emphasis’. Very limited progressive language survived the ‘strong filter‘ of the UNGASS Board and the fierce opposition of ‘a small but powerful group of member states defending the status quo’, among which China, Egypt, Indonesia and Russia. Despite strong disappointment, however, some wins have been made in the text, for example the ‘well worded recommendations to assist countries in improving access to controlled essential medicines’, as well as other ‘small victories‘ in the form of references to ‘human rights’, ‘some specific harm reduction interventions‘, ‘proportionality of sentencing’ and ‘alternative or additional measures with regard to conviction or punishment’.

While the ‘extreme polarity of [member states] positions explains the absence of any major advances in the adopted text (...) the reality of the discussions is completely different’. As soon as the document was [hastily] approved on the opening session, a series of member states ‘[took] the floor to berate the failings of the [document]’ itself.

The most conspicuous omission became evident as dozens of countries condemned the document’s silence on the death penalty, underscoring the illegality of its use for drug-related offences under international law. But a plethora of statements by member states, UN bodies and civil society organisations also highlighted the lack of explicit mentions to harm reduction, decriminalisation, the failure to call for the creation of an expert group to evaluate global drug control, and the need to recognise and to experiment with the legal regulation of internationally controlled substances. Indeed, while some countries continue to ‘maintain fixed ideas on the well-worn ‘war on drugs’ theme (...), things are evolving’. All in all, the protracted negotiations and debate both within the plenary sessions and in the roundtable discussions laid bare the fault lines of the ‘fragile consensus’ on global drug control.

Member states will meet again in 2019, when a new current Political Declaration and Plan of Action ought to be produced. In the meantime, reform will grow apace at the national and subnational levels, with an increasing number of ‘jurisdictions openly defying the UN treaty system’ by ‘regulat[ing] coca, cannabis, other currently illegal drugs, or new psychoactive substances’. In the next three years, resolving ‘the tensions between the letter of the conventions and [these] ongoing initiatives on the ground’ will be of ‘vital’ importance, and the survival of the international drug control system will depend on its own capacity to engage in a process of meaningful reform. If, once more, it falls prey to ‘inertia’ and ‘immobilism’, it risks continuing its drift into irrelevance and inevitable collapse.


For an extensive list of media coverage on the UNGASS 2016 and its preparatory process, please click here.

Keep up-to-date with drug policy developments by subscribing to the IDPC Monthly Alert