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 on a Political Declaration on Global Drug Control. Ten years later, member states met in Vienna to discuss progress made and to agree on 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 starting with a mid-term review of the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration which was held in March 2014, resulting in the adoption of a Joint Ministerial Statement by member states. During the 57th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs held the following week, the Commission adopted an UNGASS resolution, which sets the stage for how UNGASS preparations will be conducted over the next two years.
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.
The 2016 UNGASS is set to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York, United States. Although UNGASS is two years away, there are a number of key events that can be used to feed into the debates. These include:
- A series of Intersessionals to be held from now until February 2015 in Vienna.
- The Hemispheric Review of the Organisation of American States, to be held on 19th September 2014, which may result in a strategy to be submitted to the General Assembly.
- The negotiation and adoption of the Omnibus Resolution (an annual summary statement on drugs issues adopted in the Third Committee of the General Assembly) in October/November 2014, including the adoption of the UNGASS resolution discussed above.
- The re-convened session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in December 2014, during which UNODC will provide a collation of inputs from UN agencies on how UNGASS 2016 should be organized to the CND.
- The 58th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), March 2015, Vienna, during which the CND will likely adopt a resolution with recommendations for the Modalities Resolution to be considered by the General Assembly, likely in the fall of 2015. The Modalities Resolutions will outline the process for the proceedings at the 2016 UNGASS, delineating civil society participation, member states’ participation, meeting format, what (if any) the outcome of UNGASS will be, and what the negotiation process will be.
- The ECOSOC Substantive Session, July 2015, New York, during which a special high-level event on crime and criminal justice will be held, receiving outcome of Thirteenth UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (Qatar 2015).
- The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) review, September 2015, New York, which can be used as an opportunity to promote drug policy reform.
- Third Committee negotiations and adoption of the annual omnibus resolution, October/November 2015, New York. This omnibus resolution may incorporate the modalities for the UNGASS or a separate Modalities Resolution may be passed, based on the recommendations from the CND.
- The 59th Session of the CND, March 2016, during which final preparations for the UNGASS will be made.
A more detailed schedule of UN sessions, meetings and activities leading up to UNGASS will soon be available online.
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 New York NGO Committee on Drugs (NYNGOC) and/or the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs (VNGOC) as it is likely that these committees will be the formal civil society mechanisms 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.
- Send out a civil society submission to UNODC, which it will post on the civil society page of its official UNGASS website.
- Official UNGASS website
- Open Society Foundations UNGASS Explainer - What Is UNGASS 2016?
- Harm Reduction Coalition webpage on International Advocacy and the 2016 UNGASS
- TNI United Nations Drug Control webpage on UNGASS
- 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on the world drug problem
- IDPC/Open Society Foundations briefing on how NGOs working on HIV in Africa can get engaged at the 2016 UNGASS
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