CND 67: A meeting full of milestones

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CND 67: A meeting full of milestones

5 April 2024

I have been to the last 12 annual meetings of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) - the main UN space for international drug policy discussion, based in Vienna, Austria - but none of them compare to the meeting which took place a couple of weeks ago!

The 67th session of CND was comprised of two parts - a two-day, high level ‘midterm review’ on 14th and 15th March, followed by the ‘regular’ session from Monday 18th to Friday 22nd (with an IDPC members meeting, orientation training and consultation thrown in at the weekend for good measure). The biggest headlines have been covered in other blogs and videos, and will have implications for years to come:

But there was so much more happening during this CND, and many other important milestones to note as well.

Civil society was strong and vocal

One of the most visible impacts of IDPC’s long-term engagement and coordination around CND is the high level of civil society participation throughout the meeting. There were approximately 2,500 participants at this year’s meeting, including 600 civil society representatives from a wide range of organisations. Many more were able to follow the proceedings on UN Web TV from afar, both in real time and on demand.

After the interruptions of the COVID pandemic, it felt like reform-oriented civil society was stronger, more vocal and better coordinated than ever before, especially at the high-level segment general debate, where powerful statements from Ahmed Said on behalf of the African Network of People who Use Drugs and from Diego Andrés Lugo-Vivas from Colombia, representing the International Indigenous Drug Policy Alliance were heard alongside interventions from Colombian President Gustavo Petro (via video), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.

Thanks to the efforts of the International Indigenous Drug Policy Alliance, this CND featured the strongest participation of Indigenous voices to date - an important, powerful yet previously mostly absent voice. The involvement of Indigenous persons is especially relevant due to Bolivia's initiation, in 2023, of a 'critical review' of the coca leaf within the international drug control system. This complex process is currently under the jurisdiction of the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) and will culminate in a vote at the CND to remove the coca leaf from international scheduling. Such action would rectify the historical misstep of scheduling the coca leaf, which was arguably driven by colonial biases and racial prejudices. In fact, Bolivia signalled its commitment with a powerful intervention by Vice President David Choquehuanca at the opening of the high-level segment.

Civil society made a number of strong interventions during the regular session too - including IDPC’s Ann Fordham - as well as organising a record number of side events (see below).

Photo: IDPC members at the CND meeting, March 2024

Human rights at the forefront

It has often been a struggle to align the ‘parallel universes’ of UN debates in Vienna (home to drug control and crime) and Geneva (home to human rights and health) - but the 67th session felt like a huge step in the right direction. Firstly, a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke in person at the CND for the first time, when Volker Türk returned to his hometown to tell delegates that “After decades of following a largely punitive approach, we can see this simply is not working. Not by any metric”, resulting in a “a roll-call of misery and violations of human rights”. This comes after the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) became the first-ever UN agency to invite Member States to consider the responsible regulation of drugs last September - a frontal attack on the drug control agencies sitting in Vienna.

His intervention in the high-level midterm review came amongst other progressive statements from the UN Secretary General, the Director-General of the World Health Organization and the UNAIDS Executive Director (all via video). Meanwhile, the UNODC Executive Director, Ghada Waly, did mention “harm reduction”, but only in the context of it not being effective “as long as dangerous substances continue to flood communities” - a statement which appears to miss the point.

Elsewhere, civil society had the opportunity to directly engage with a member of the UN Human Rights Committee (also attending CND for the first time), and to feed into the forthcoming reports on harm reduction from the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health (the first report due to be launched in June 2024). There were several important, and high-profile, side events on human rights and a series of seven coordinated events to help disseminate the groundbreaking human rights and drug policy report from the OHCHR.

Geopolitics remain central at the CND

The CND is first and foremost a diplomatic forum and, as such, a place where geopolitics takes a central stage. We saw it in the past with the war in Ukraine, which was at the forefront of the 2022 edition of the CND and triggered the first procedural vote in Vienna in decades. And it happened again this year, particularly around the ongoing war in Gaza and Palestine.

At least eight Member States used their Plenary interventions to express their concern over the war being waged by Israel, albeit with different nuances. In particular, there were explicit references to the war by Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Norway, Pakistan, South Africa, Syria and Turkey, and of course a rebuttal by Israel. On top of that, Canada, the European Union and Sweden made more vague calls for peace. There were also at least nine statements condemning the war in Ukraine, and a rebuttal by Russia.

IDPC was the only civil society organisation to use its plenary statement to express, on behalf of many members of the network, solidarity with the people in Palestine, calling for an immediate ceasefire and the release of all those deprived of liberty against international law by all sides. These demands echo calls from within the UN human rights system. Indeed, a great deal of our work to end the ‘war on drugs’ is premised on the notion that the United Nations must place the human rights of all persons at the centre of its work, above all politics, geopolitics and conflicts.

A record number of side events provided space for genuine drug policy debate

Woven throughout the agenda was a programme crammed with 174 side events - a record number for the CND. The majority were hosted by, or involved, civil society organisations. Indeed, the IDPC network were involved in over a third of these events, and IDPC itself co-sponsored 29 events, including a discussion of the “blind spots” from our Midterm Review Shadow Report. Unfortunately, the record numbers meant that it was hard to engage member state audiences and prioritise between competing events, and many excellent discussions were sidelined into tiny rooms and/or undesirable early morning slots. Many had participants spilling out the doors as the rooms were so full.

The range and ambition of the side events confirmed the status of the CND as a global ‘drug policy conference’ - a space where new research is presented, and where drug policy experts seek to make connections with new actors. For example, the IDPC Secretariat was proud to facilitate two side events that opened new conversations with other movements that we hope will be be in close connection to drug policy reform in the future:

  • ‘From militarised prohibition to intersectional inclusions: A feminist approach to drug policy’, an event which presented concrete ways in which drug policies should be embedded in a strong feminist approach, and co-organised with various feminist organisations, including the IWRAW-AP, AWID, CREA and the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy.
  • ‘Big brother and the war on drugs’, a first exploration of the intersection between surveillance, policing, and drug policy, co-organised with Access Now, the Drug Policy Alliance, EDRi, the Justice Collective, Release, and Unjust UK. Video recording available here.

UNODC champions drug prevention over everything else

One final take from the 67th CND was the UNODC’s new pet project - Children Amplified Prevention Services, or ‘CHAMPS’. Since this initiative was first announced, with its bold target to raise an eye-watering USD 500 million for programmes aimed at “the resilience of children from birth to adolescence”, concerns rose about exactly what this project would encompass, how evidence-based and rights-informed it would be, how youth-led organisations would be involved, and how it could further marginalise UNODC’s other health-related work such as the underfunded HIV/AIDS programme.

Drug prevention has an important role to play in a continuum of care related to drug use - as emphasised by initiatives such as the Declaration of Oviedo. But the lack of detail and information about CHAMPS, beyond the slogans and fundraising calls, has only fuelled concerns given UNODC’s track record on human rights. Will CHAMPS be driven and shaped by certain donor governments? Will it support school-based surveillance, involuntary treatment and interventions, as well as ineffective models and approaches not in line with the UNODC and WHO International Standards on Drug Use Prevention? When asked more about the initiative by the youth-led Paradigma coalition during a civil society Q&A session, the UNODC Executive Director did little to reassure: “how can you be concerned about something you don’t have information about yet?”

During the high-level segment of the CND, 66 governments made a ‘Pledge 4 Action’ - another new idea for this year’s session. On the closing day, Ghada Waly provided the 67th pledge on behalf of UNODC. After a meeting where harm reduction became agreed language for the first time, where civil society participation was so strong, where the ‘Vienna consensus’ was finally broken, and where human rights considerations were so prominent - the UNODC pledge was… “a paradigm shift towards much stronger frameworks for prevention”.

On 8th April, IDPC will host a public event to debrief and unpack the highlights, headlines and implications of this milestone CND – click here for more information. The CND Blog provides a searchable record of statements and interventions, while our more detailed CND Proceedings Report will follow in the summer.