The ‘General Assembly’ is the principle policy making organ of the United Nations (UN), and the only one in which all 193 UN member states have equal representation. At the request of member states, it convenes UN General Assembly Special Sessions (UNGASS) on specific issues. There was an UNGASS on drugs in 1998 at which member states agreed a Political Declaration on Global Drug Control. Ten years later, member states met in Vienna to discuss progress made and to agree a new Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem.

The next UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) was due to be held in 2019 – the target date set out in the 2009 Political Declaration and Action Plan for the achievement of a significant reduction in or the elimination of the demand and supply of drugs. However in September 2012, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico called on the UN to host an international conference on drug policy reform. Subsequently, a provision was included in an annual omnibus resolution on drug policy – sponsored by Mexico, and co-sponsored by 95 other countries – to bring forward this global drug policy summit meeting to 2016.

The preparations are already in progress with a mid-term review of the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration scheduled for March 2014.

The UNGASS on drugs comes at a time when there have been growing calls for drug policy reform across Latin America. For the first time, sitting presidents – such as Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina – are questioning the underlining premises of the international drug control paradigm and calling for debate on alternative approaches. One concrete result of such efforts was the May 2013 release of an innovative report on drug policy by the Organisation of American States (OAS), as a tool for promoting regional and international debate. At this year’s UN General Assembly meeting, Santos and Pérez Molina were joined by President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico and President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, who called for developing more effective responses to drug trafficking based on public health, respect for human rights and harm reduction. All four presidents united in calling for an open and wide-ranging debate leading up to the 2016 UNGASS.

Timeline

The 2016 UNGASS is set to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York, United States. Although UNGASS is three years away, there are a number of key events that can be used to feed into the debates. These include:

  • The negotiation and adoption of the Omnibus Resolution (an annual summary statement on drugs issues) in October/November 2013 which may set the timeline for the Modalities Resolution.
  • The High Level Segment of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), March 2014, Vienna.
  • The adoption of the Modalities Resolution in New York in either 2014 or 2015, which will outline the process for the proceedings at the 2016 UNGASS, delineating civil society participation, member states’ participation, what (if any) the outcome of UNGASS will be, and what the negotiation process will be. The resolution is usually passed in the autumn prior to an UNGASS, but Guatemala is pushing for its passage in the autumn of 2014 instead.
  • The Hemispheric Review of the Organisation of American States, to be held in 2014, which may result in a strategy to be submitted to the General Assembly.
  • The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) review, New York, September 2015, which may be used as an opportunity to promote drug policy reform.

Civil society engagement

There are several ways in which NGOs can engage in the preparations for UNGASS:

  • Support and join international reform organisations to strengthen their influence in the international community and at the UN and to stay informed about the process.
  • Join the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs (VNGOC) as it is likely that this committee will be the formal civil society mechanism for engaging in the UNGASS.
  • Educate public opinion on the structure of international drug policy politics and decision-making, options for reform.
  • Lobby your government to promote more progressive drug policies during international debates.

Key resources

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