Over the past six decades, the international drug control regime has relied upon the implementation of the three UN drug conventions, under strict supervision from the Vienna-based UN drug control bodies – the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). This highly centralised international drug control regime exerts a great deal of normative pressure on national and regional drug policies.

In fact, narrow interpretations of the UN drug control treaties are often presented by the UN drug control bodies and governments opposed to reform to justify continuing repressive responses and to stifle progressive approaches, for example resistance to harm reduction measures and decriminalisation, and more recently cannabis regulation initiatives.

Sustained civil society advocacy in favour of drug policy reform at the international level has been crucial in shifting the rhetoric towards upholding human rights, ensuring the centrality of health outcomes as well as promoting just and proportionate criminal justice responses and highlighting the development dimension (linking strongly to the Sustainable Development Goals). All of this progress is visible in the 2016 UNGASS Outcome Document, where the IDPC network played a central role in supporting progressive governments to fight for strong language on the key areas of priority for the Consortium.

In the past five to ten years, and in particular in the lead up to the UNGASS, civil society has increased in strength and visibility in the global drug policy debate. This is an important achievement because civil society voices have traditionally not been valued within drug policy debates, and it has been a fight to ensure that civil society organisations and representatives of affected communities could be heard. For the first few decades of UN drug policy discussions, civil society voices focused almost exclusively on pushing for stronger prohibition, which indirectly encouraged repressive measures to reduce demand and supply. Visible and credible reform-minded groups have been important in redressing that balance.

The reform narrative has gained significant ground which is most clearly demonstrated by the progressive tone coming from the UN system. In the lead up to the UNGASS, nearly all the UN entities which engaged with the process highlighted the failures and damage of prohibition and many of them called for reforms including specifically the decriminalisation of people who use drugs. In addition, many of the civil society groups from the other end of the spectrum have increasingly taken on a more moderate rhetoric, reflecting that reform groups have been successful in shifting the debate. At – and since – the UNGASS, the reform messages have dominated the civil society narrative.

There is an undeniable link between global and national-level drug policy. And ensuring the participation of civil society representatives, and supporting their advocacy efforts, at UN forums on drugs exposes them to what their government says at the UN and encourage accountability back at the national level. For instance, attending the CND enables civil society delegates to meet with their national delegations, follow up back in capitals, and feedback to their civil society colleagues at national level.  During the UNGASS, the reform movement was able to draw on these efforts. Many credible and vocal civil society actors were represented on the Civil Society Task Force (the official NGO engagement mechanism in the UNGASS process), and were able to speak in the UN meetings, engage with their national governments and report back to national civil society networks. The Civil Society Task Force was revived ahead of the 2019 Ministerial Segment and has been active in ensuring diverse views and voices are represented in the UN debates in the preparations over the past year – including with Civil Society Hearings held in New York last week, and in Vienna tomorrow.

Looking back to 2016, many civil society groups initially had mixed feelings about the results of the UNGASS. At the time, there was disappointment as the language in the Outcome Document was felt to have fallen short of expectations. Some actors who had optimistically hoped that the 2016 Session would bring an end to the ‘war on drugs’ felt disappointed. However, most NGOs quickly realised – as did many policy makers – that the UNGASS Outcome Document was, in fact, the most progressive, forward-looking document on global drug control to date. The key areas of progress included:

  • An important shift away from the traditional 3 pillars (demand reduction, supply reduction, money laundering) towards a new 7 theme structure that includes specific themes on access to controlled medicines, on human rights and gender and on development. This was strongly advocated for by IDPC and other reform-minded NGOs ahead of the UNGASS.
  • Improvements in language on access to controlled medicines, human rights, overdose prevention, gender issues, proportionate sentencing and appropriate and just criminal justice responses.
  • An irrevocable break in the long revered global consensus on punitive drug control with member states in open disagreement with each other at the UNGASS in New York on many key issues (decriminalisation, death penalty, the failure of the war on drugs, legal regulation).
  • For the first time, a strong engagement of UN agencies working on health, human rights, security, development and gender on drug policy issues, with progressive statements calling for reform.
  • Compared with the last UNGASS in 1998, no UN officials called for ‘a drug-free world’. The President of the General Assembly in closing said, ‘With your experience and expertise, you have brought home to us the immense human cost of this problem and indeed, at times, of the approaches we take to address it’. He also acknowledged that affected populations ‘need interventions that have proven to work and perhaps as importantly: they need honesty about those that have failed’. This kind of admission of the failure of drug control policies was unprecedented at the General Assembly.

The UNGASS also marked a real shift in the tone of the UN drug control bodies such as the INCB and the UNODC with respect to their strict view on how to implement drug control. Both organisations have since become more vocal regarding some of the most serious human rights violations committed under the guise of drug control – for example around the question of the death penalty in Indonesia, extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and Bangladesh, and human rights abuses more broadly.

IDPC, alongside many other reform-minded NGOs, has made a direct contribution to this shift in rhetoric. We have been consistent and unwavering in our advocacy with respect to the UN debates for many years, seeking to create pressure and tension in the system and to draw out the inconsistencies. Ultimately, we will continue to push for an honest debate about serious failures of punitive drug policies, and make adherence to the status quo of repressive and damaging policies untenable. With our shadow reports which have reviewed progress over the last decade of global drug policy (with analysis focusing on global-level progress and a regional report centred on the Asia region), we have presented the evidence of the (in)effectiveness of the current repressive regime to the highest levels of decision making at UN and national level.

However, there is reason to be worried about the current state of the debates. As the international community is preparing to meet at a Ministerial Segment in a few weeks, member states have embarked in difficult negotiations on a consensus-based resolution that would pave the way to the strategy to be adopted by UN member states for the next decade of global drug control.

As the negotiations are progressing, it seems clear that there are some irreconcilable differences hampering a global consensus on the way forward. The main point of disagreement remains the question around what the overarching objective of global drug control should be for the next decade. Various member states are keen to acknowledge the failings of current drug control (which IDPC has summarised in the Shadow Report) and the need to adopt a comprehensive and human rights-based approach to drug policy – as laid out in the UNGASS Outcome Document. However, this more progressive position has been met by vocal and well-organised block of conservative member states wishing to revert back to the 2009 Political Document and its overly punitive, zero-tolerance approach to drug control.

In a geo-political context vastly different from the ‘mood of change’ that had characterised the 2016 UNGASS debate, it is critical that reform-minded NGOs keep the pressure on both governments and the UN – and continued advocacy at the UN level to challenge the international regime to retain the gains made at the UNGASS is a priority. This, in turn, will insert downward normative pressure at the national level. At a time when populist and authoritarian regimes are taking hold of various countries around the world, coordinated, vibrant and vocal global advocacy by reform NGOs will ensure that the international community can no longer ignore the voices and plea for reform of those most affected by repressive drug policies.