CND informal consensus rule tested in decriminalization standoff


CND informal consensus rule tested in decriminalization standoff

6 November 2013
Katherine Pettus, PhD

Country delegations to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) don’t usually vote on things… The protocol is that member states reach consensus on language and policy (often meaning that the final language reflects the lowest common denominator). Usually this diplomatic process works and delegates compromise, keeping their powder dry for the next important round of discussions. However, at the most recent inter-sessional meeting of the CND on 5th November, some delegates drew “red lines” and staked out non-negotiable positions on key issues.

The fireworks erupted late in the day as member states struggled to finalize language for the Joint Ministerial Statement (JMS) i- a document that reviews progress made and remaining challenges since the adoption of the 2009 Political Declaration on the World Drug Problem. As Mr. Garcia Revilla, the Peruvian Chair tried valiantly to consolidate the many contributions into coherent text, certain member states refused to compromise.The process became irremediably stuck on the wording of paragraph 6, which provisionally read:

“[Member states] take note of the worldwide active debate on the consideration of new approaches towards tackling the World Drug Problem, including a greater focus on public health, the well-being of users and the demand aspect of the drug problem, the legalization and decriminalization of the use off certain drugs, and emphasize the need for an open, transparent and forward looking discussion on these issues within the multilateral system.”

… sounds good, right? Not. This paragraph had been a bone of contention all day long, with Canada, the USA, Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, Italy, Russia, China, and Pakistan among others objecting to the red flag words “legalization” and “decriminalization.” While Pakistan recommended that the paragraph be deleted altogether, other member states refused to contemplate a final paragraph that included these particular words, citing the sacrosanct criminalizing framework of the three UN drug control conventions. The delegate from Portugal made a short statement re-emphasizing his country’s independently audited 2001 policy of decriminalizing all drugs for personal use, which has shown improved public health and meets many of the demand reduction objectives outlined in the 2009 Political Declaration itself, such as encouraging poeple dependent on drugs to enter drug treatment programs. Although he supported deleting the reference to “legalization”, he refused to allow the paragraph as a whole to be deleted as per the Russian and Pakistan recommendation, saying he had “exhausted his instructions from capital.” The delegate from Pakistan retaliated that, “this paragraph has serious legal consequences and, acting on what he said were “clear instructions” from his capital, declared, “this contentious proposal must be deleted.”

The verbal standoff between Pakistan and Portugal ended in a draw with the Chair instructing the delegate from Mexico (who also insisted that the parameters of the debate be recognized rather than suppressed) to work with member states to come up with compromise language acceptable to all - a tall order given the positions that member states had taken. The division between various countries was further demonstrated by the delegate from the Netherlands, who responded to the Russian proposals to reiterate the criminal nature of cultivating (illicit) poppy, coca and cannabis plants, and supporting Portugal, declaring that “the well being of users is more important than anything… In the UN we are here for the people not for the plants, or for gardening.”

Another key contention on the day was the death penalty. This important issue was not mentioned in the current draft Joint Ministerial Statement despite being raised in previous discussion. Switzerland, with support from the European Union, insisted on its insertion in the text in what was also a lively, contentious, and ultimately unresolved discussion. The good news was that new and stronger language on the importance of improving access to essential medicines for the relief of pain and suffering was not opposed by any member states (although the question is, will it survive the next round of negotiations?).

For more information on this process, please click here. The CND Blog also contains detailed records of the interventions made by member states during this series of inter-sessional meetings in Vienna. The next meeting is on the 18th and 19th November, and IDPC and partners will once again be in attendance to follow the lines that are being drawn in the sand.