The UN drugs debate goes virtual: Greater inclusion but common divisions


The UN drugs debate goes virtual: Greater inclusion but common divisions

6 May 2021

Instead of gathering in-person in Vienna for the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), this year the majority of participants – including government officials, UN staff and civil society – joined the “hybrid” event online for the first ever time.

This year’s CND had elevated importance too, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 50th anniversary of the 1971 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and the 5th anniversary of the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs. IDPC published an analysis of “progress” made over the five years since the UNGASS that once again highlights the continued devastating impacts of drug control on health, human rights and development. This damning reality stands in stark contrast with the self-congratulatory tone of the celebrations for the anniversary of the conventions that took place during CND itself.

The COVID Statement: A deadly denial of prison overcrowding

No UN meeting would be complete in the current climate without due attention to COVID-19 and how it has impacted the issue at hand. A draft CND declaration on COVID had originally been proposed by Russia in late 2020. Ahead of the April session, the draft resurfaced as a “Statement” put forward by the CND Chair (H.E. Ms. Dominika Anna Krois of Poland). In keeping with a worrying trend in Vienna, all of the negotiations on the text were conducted in ‘informal’ sessions which excludes civil society observers. Following lengthy and fraught negotiations, the final text was rubber stamped at the opening plenary of the 64th CND.

Disappointingly, the Statement did not include explicit mention of the risk COVID-19 poses to people deprived of liberty in prisons and other places of detention, especially given the role of drug laws in fueling prison overcrowding. The final text acknowledges that “people with drug use disorders, including those incarcerated, may be at increased risk of more severe illness and mortality from COVID-19”. Yet it fails to acknowledge that some countries have successfully instituted prison release schemes in response to COVID-19, nor to underline the need to reduce prison overcrowding. At the CND, the continued denial of how drug law enforcement is one of the key drivers of mass incarceration, arbitrary detention and human rights violations encapsulates the dire disconnection that hinders UN drug policy debates.

The U.S. supports ‘harm reduction’ for the first time!

For the first time in history, the U.S. give explicit and positive support for harm reduction in their plenary statement. Delivered by Regina LaBelle, Acting Director of the ONDCP, the statement called for “modern solutions—such as expanding access to evidence-based treatment services and harm reduction services, and prioritizing racial equity”. Given how contentious the term ‘harm reduction’ has been in Vienna over the years and how efforts to resist the term have often been championed by the U.S., this a remarkable development. In the longer term it may be possible to once again seek the inclusion of the term ‘harm reduction’ in a UN drugs declaration if the U.S. is willing to use their considerable diplomatic clout to do so. In the more immediate term, negotiations have started in New York on the next Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS and there we will also need the new administration to defend harm reduction language now they have explicitly endorsed it both domestically and at the CND. And while these positive U.S. moves at CND are very welcome, they barely scratch the surface of the urgent reforms needed in U.S. domestic and foreign drug policy.

Decriminalisation coming to the fore

On another positive note, the need for decriminalisation received significant support at this year’s session, such as in the national statements of Costa Rica, Malta, Mexico, the Netherlands and Spain but also in the plenary statements from other UN entities such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS. A new voice at the CND was that of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Peter Sands, the Executive Director of the Fund, spoke out clearly on the urgent need to decriminalise people for using drugs. He linked criminalisation for drug offences to severely congested prisons and applauded those countries that had taken measures to decongest prisons, noting the high-risk environment of overcrowded prisons for COVID and other deadly communicable diseases.

Decriminalisation was also a prominent feature of the side events programme, In a side event, titled “We Are the Evidence’ – Community-Led Responses on Decriminalisation, Harm Reduction and COVID-19”, the International Network of People who Use Drugs launched a new report, Drug Decriminalisation: Progress or Political Red Herring? which brings the critical perspectives from people who use drugs to bear on a more nuanced debate on decriminalisation. The event was co-sponsored by the Government of Norway, despite their own domestic process towards this important legal reform facing serious setbacks in the same week after the coalition government’s proposal was rejected by the main opposition group. The counter-reform narrative from the opposition in Norway echoed that presented in another CND side event, “Decriminalisation: What Works and what does not”, organised by Movendi International. Here, the lead presenter argued against decriminalisation because of the ‘preventative’ effect of criminal sanctions on drug use, but conceded that people with drug dependence should receive alternative sanctions such as a referrals to treatment. This narrative is problematic given the overwhelming evidence that criminalisation and punishment have failed to have a deterrence effect on drug use, and instead have exacerbated health and other harms for people who use drugs. Indeed, the entire UN system now explicitly promotes decriminalisation through its Common Position based on the evidence that criminalisation is ineffective, harmful and counterproductive and the new Global AIDS Strategy has a clear target for governments to end the use of such punitive laws.

Negotiating resolutions: “What we’ve just done is decide that these people are not worth mentioning”

Although there were only four resolutions to actively negotiate during the session (with some governments deciding against proposing resolutions due to the difficult nature of online negotiations), the debates surpassed the scheduled times and ran late into Thursday night and most of the day Friday (leading the closing Plenary to be delayed). The delay was mainly caused by the resolution tabled by Canada – “Facilitating access to comprehensive, scientific evidence-based drug demand reduction services and related measures, including for people impacted by social marginalization”. For most people, this probably seems quite uncontroversial. But within the fractious atmosphere of the CND, the very premise of this resolution was called into question by some governments. The definition of ‘marginalisation’ was hotly debated and there was no consensus that structural oppression exists which marginalises people of colour, women, gender non-conformity, migrants, people who use drugs, Indigenous people, people deprived of liberty, and many others. In fact, even attempts to include examples of marginalised groups in the text met a brick wall from the more conservative countries. In the eleventh-hour negotiations, the U.S., making good on their new commitment to ‘racial equity’, noted that the very definition of marginalisation is the “act of treating a person, group or concept as something that is insignificant or not worth mentioning”, and strongly lamented that “what we [member states] have just done is decide that these people are not worth mentioning”. The unprecedented U.S. support for more progressive language appeared to embolden some of the other more human rights friendly governments that fought hard for mentions of gender diversity (the UK and the Netherlands) and Indigenous peoples (Australia and Canada) but ultimately did not get this through the thorny consensus.

The other resolution that civil society followed closely was tabled by Nigeria and allies from Africa, focused on the non-medical use of opioids. This resolution raised alarm bells because of the initial focus on tramadol, and on punitive responses at the expense of medical access. Tramadol has been reviewed several times by the World Health Organisation, and they consistently recommended against placing it under international control – mainly because doing so would limit access to this very important medicine for moderate to severe pain, especially in Africa. The WHO’s decision continues to be undermined and challenged by Nigeria, Egypt and their allies, who have lobbied for years for the substance to be internationally scheduled. Problematically, they often present their position as being that of the “Africa Group” at CND, as the lack of active engagement from other African nations prevents more progressive perspectives from being heard. Yet, even in Nigeria itself, the problem is poorly understood – with many “non-medical” tramadol users trying to address legitimate medical needs in the absence of other options, and much of the counterfeit tramadol actually being a mix of other opioids. Ultimately, the text was agreed by consensus after numerous additions and amendments from governments to rebalance the tone, and to remove the focus on tramadol specifically.

UN system-wide coherence: Vienna resists

As noted in my post-CND blog last year, despite the hard-won UN Common Position on drugs, Vienna-based entities still remain wedded to a siloed thinking and resistant to facilitating and encouraging engagement from the wider UN family on the issue of drugs. UNODC’s first corporate strategy in nearly a decade, released in February 2021, fails to make a single mention of the UN Common Position and of the UN Task Team to implement it, which UNODC is meant to lead. Even more problematically, the strategy fails to align with most policies put forward by the UN Common Position, from the decriminalisation of people who use drugs to the commitment to call for change in drug policies that harm health and human rights.

While during this CND we saw some member states (primarily those resistant to protecting human rights) continue to dispute the role and legitimacy of the UN Common Position and the Task Team through plenary statements, and in resolutions negotiations. This makes the current lack of leadership from UNODC in promoting the UN Common Position deeply disappointing, especially given the strong and vocal support for the Common Position by numerous countries as well as other UN entities such as OHCHR and UNAIDS. In fact, the greater participation from across the UN system on drug policy that was galvanised by the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session continues apace and ultimately UNODC risks being increasingly out of step unless it truly takes up this key UN policy document.

A hybrid meeting model: Civil society remain present and engaged

This CND was an important experiment to see how a “hybrid” meeting would work. With the restrictions brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic, there were concerns that the shift to online participation at UN meetings would further shrink civil society space. However, as mentioned in a joint closing statement by the Vienna and New York NGO Committees on Drugs, the online participation of civil society at CND generally worked well – and likely allowed for greater engagement with the UN drugs debate both from civil society and government participants. Nearly 150 official passes were requested by ECOSOC-registered NGOs, which allowed them to join the main platform for Plenary meetings, request interventions, and observe the Committee of the Whole. Hundreds more were able to follow the plenary webcasts all week, while the record-breaking programme of 110 side events was open to all. Of course, there were some technological hiccups, as well as challenges in terms of time zones and the internet capacity to stream an entire week of meetings. But overall, the CND showed that such models can work, and should therefore be considered in the future as well, to complement in-person attendance once this is possible again. Prior to the CND, the Vienna NGO Committee released an important position statement to outline their hopes for the week - and it is refreshing to see that most of these were met.

Perhaps the virtual setting made possible the controversial appearance on behalf of Myanmar of Lieutenant General Than Hlaing in the CND plenary, who was appointed as Deputy Minister of Home Affairs and Chief of Police in Myanmar one day after the military coup on the 1st of February. His participation has been sharply criticised as an affront to the democratically elected government. Than Hlaing was blacklisted by the European Union together with ten other coup leaders for being directly responsible for serious human rights violations by police forces acting under his authority. It was the first appearance in a UN forum of a high-level military representative from Myanmar directly involved in the coup and is being questioned by national civil society groups.

Drawing out new lines

Several important issues came to the fore during this CND and indicate new ‘battle’ lines for the UN drug policy dicussion. The issue of prison overcrowding was debated at this CND (as part of the negotiations on the COVID Statement) really for the first time but it certainly will not be the last. The discussion of how drug laws fuel mass incarceration is starting to gain traction at the UN and in June, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will submit a study on arbitrary detention and drug policies to the Human Rights Council.

The issue of marginalised populations was fiercely debated this year as noted above and is another wedge issue that will undoubtably come up again. The tension between Indigenous rights and the now 60-year old 1961 Convention is a topic that will surface more strongly especially given the growing global movement to challenge damaging colonial legacies. While the disproportionate impact of the ‘war on drugs’ on people of colour is also becoming more visible and in June, OHCHR will present a report on promoting the human rights of Africans and people of African descent against violations by law enforcement.

As I have written in several previous blogs on UN drug policy, the ever flimsy veil of consensus continues to fall away as the weight of the damage and failure of punitive drug policies becomes ever more undeniable.


Related Profiles

  • International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC)