The invasion of Ukraine by the regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia was the key political theme throughout the 65th Session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna last week. Even though the Russian delegation urged the CND to focus instead on issues related to drug control, they also made accusations that the Ukrainian government has been involved in state-sponsored drug trafficking, among other similarly startling allegations.

This atypically belligerent climate during a CND meeting reached its apex with one particular interaction that, due to its procedural, rhetorical, and historical notoriety deserves specific attention.

At every session of the CND, member states agree on the composition of the Bureau of the working group responsible for the oversight of UNODC’s finances and governance (‘FINGOV’). This is usually a formality – each one of the five UN regional groups nominates a candidate and everyone else agrees. Russia has long played a role in this group and, in February, was informally agreed to be the Eastern Europe Group’s ('EEG') nomination for the Bureau of FINGOV for 2022-2023 as well.

However, following the invasion of Ukraine, Latvia came forward as an alternative candidate for the Eastern Europe Group. In this context, the EEG was unable to agree who to put forward as the nominee.

When the discussion of agenda item 4 (Strategic management, budgetary and administrative questions) reached the Plenary on Tuesday, 15 March, the Russian delegation asked for the process of nomination to be wholly postponed to the reconvened session of CND, in December 2022. The Russian delegate invoked Rule 48 of the Rules of Procedure of ECOSOC to enable this move.

Other member states rejected the suggestion by Russia. And so, the CND Chair, Ambassador Ghislain D'Hoop from Belgium, took the floor to clarify that Rule 48 (on condolences) was not relevant but that Rule 49 did allow for the adjournment of an agenda item, as sought by Russia, provided that this decision was supported by a majority in the Commission.

The Russian delegate urged the Plenary to vote on Thursday, 17 March, but the Chair underscored that Rule 49 requires an immediate vote.

Votes are incredibly rare at sessions of the CND. In fact, there is no record of a vote at the Commission in modern times. In this setting, votes are perceived to undermine the logics of consensus that structure debates in the Commission —which is commonly referred to as the ‘Vienna Consensus’.

CND vote tellers show an empty ballot box before the first vote at a CND plenary meeting in modern times.
By forcing a vote, perhaps by accident, Russia broke the ‘Vienna Consensus’ —according to the statement of UNODC’s Executive Director at the closing of the session on Friday, this was a first in history.

The vote was held at the Plenary at 14:00 on Tuesday. Russia lost by 30 votes to 4, meaning that the item was not delayed to December and a decision on the composition of the Bureau of FINGOV had to be made during the week of the 65th Session of CND. As a result, a further vote was held on Thursday to select the nominee for the Bureau of the Eastern European Group. Latvia won by 33 votes to 6.

This procedure meant that Russia suffered two embarrassing defeats in one week. And this took place at the CND, which is a forum where the country usually wields significant power and influence.

Before the Thursday vote, the Russian delegate took the floor once more to deliver scathing remarks questioning the procedure of nomination itself and the credentials of the Latvian candidate.

The response from the Latvian Ambassador, Katrina Kaktina, was surgically sharp:

‘Thank you, Mr Chairman!

Let us look at what are the tasks of FINGOV Bureau where the Latvian candidate is competing against the Russian candidate for the post of vice-chair: it deals with governance and financial matters, the consolidated budget of UNODC, evaluation and oversight, human resources management, mainstreaming a gender perspective into the practices, policies and programmes of UNODC and progress made by UNODC in implementing its regional and global programmes.

I believe that a representative of a country whose credit rating has been downgraded to C-minus-minus-minus, because of the war it is waging against Ukraine would not be the best adviser on financial matters and consolidated budget of UNODC.

I believe that a representative of a country that heavily miscalculated its capacity in the war against Ukraine would not be the best adviser on evaluation and oversight in UNODC.

I believe that a representative of a country that is being more and more isolated because of its aggression against Ukraine would not be the best adviser on implementation of regional and global programmes.

I believe that a representative of a country that detains and harasses women protesting in Russian cities against the war and that blocks all gender equality language in documents of international organizations in Vienna, even more, whose President just yesterday used words “so called gender freedoms” – I believe representative of such views would not be the best adviser on mainstreaming gender perspective into practice, policies and programmes of UNODC.

I believe that a representative of a country that is not allowing humanitarian corridors to a city it is besieging letting a 6 year old child die of dehydration would not be the best adviser on human resources management.

Instead, Latvia has always been serious about its international law commitments. It has never in its history attacked another state. And Latvia’s record on human rights, gender equality, anti-corruption can be checked on United Nations yearly statistics. Latvia is serious about regional and global cooperation by means of diplomacy.

Therefore, I kindly ask the members of the CND to support my candidature —a reliable and peaceful partner in international relations that will come to you with a pen, a paper, and an open mind, and not with a warship.’

It is an incredible riposte and statement by United Nations and CND standards. Crucially, after the statement and the embarrassment of losing their place at FINGOV, the representative of Russia took the floor again to accuse Latvia of the ‘glorification of Nazism’, which led a large number of member states to walk out of the room once again.

It is difficult to gauge the long term implications of this high-level friction on drug-policymaking in Vienna. And yet it is clear that the ongoing diplomatic, geopolitical, and humanitarian crises precipitated by the invasion of Ukraine have only potentiated pre-existing tensions at the heart of an unravelling ‘Vienna Consensus’.