At this, the 60th CND and the first since the 2016 Special Session of the General Assembly on the ‘World Drug Problem’, the INCB found itself busily engaged in the proceedings.

The opening statement by Mr Werner Sipp, the President of INCB, was an ambivalent presentation: though it was, at times, perhaps the least progressive of the interventions made by the Board during the week, it nonetheless included a powerful defence of the human rights of people who use drugs and a searing critique of governments who continue to abrogate those rights. While applauding the results of the 2016 UNGASS, Mr Sipp concentrated on the role of the international drug control conventions in underpinning the global response to drugs. He spoke critically of those ‘voices (that) continue to talk about a need to “modernise” or “reform” the conventions’. INCB, however, remains staunch in its defence of the flexibility of the conventions, which do not permit states to legalise or regulate the non-medical use of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances. This stance is unfortunate, since it is, arguably, precisely in non-medical forms of use that greater flexibility is needed from the international drug control system.

The INCB President then spoke of the Board’s annual report, which this year includes a thematic chapter on the issues surrounding women and drugs. He urged governments to ensure that their drug control structures take into account the specific needs of women, while repeating the Board’s support for human rights and the principle of proportionality in their legal responses to drugs offences.  ‘(T)he drug control conventions do not require the imprisonment of people who use drugs or who commit minor drug related offences’, emphasised Mr Sipp. For IDPC, Ms Marie Nougier welcomed the annual report, in particular the chapter on drugs and women, while urging states – in accord with the INCB’s recommendations – to desist from the use of the death penalty of suspected drug traffickers and extrajudicial killings.  

The INCB’s focus on proportionality was illustrated by the side event on the issue that the Board organised on 16th March, during which Mr Sipp again spoke at length, underlining that, despite the right of states to assign their choice of punishment, ‘disproportionate responses undermine the aims of the conventions and undermine the rule of law’. He went on to urge states that continue to use capital punishment to consider its abolition for all drug offences. In his opening speech, Mr Sipp had condemned, ‘in the strongest possible terms’, the extra-judicial targeting of people suspected of drug offences, which he termed a ‘serious breach of human rights’ and ‘an affront to the most basic standards of human dignity’. While in keeping with the standards of diplomacy, no countries were named, the object of the Board’s condemnation was clear.

Returning to a topic featuring in its latest annual report, the INCB President’s opening presentation touched on Drug Consumption Rooms. While its position has softened in respect of these facilities, the INCB stressed that in order that they comply with the conventions, a number of conditions must be met. ‘The ultimate objective of such facilities,’ said Mr Sipp, ‘must be to reduce the adverse consequences of drug abuse without condoning or increasing drug abuse or encouraging drug trafficking.’

The recently instituted ‘Informal Dialogue with Civil Society’, an encounter in which the Board has now been involved for several years, took place again this year, with Mr Sipp in attendance. The event was chaired by Esbjorn Hornberg and Katherine Pettus, both of the Vienna NGO Committee, and involved an interesting discussion structured around questions and answers. VNGOC asked the INCB to submit a list of organisations with whom the Board met on its country missions. Mr Sipp explained that this would pose problems, however, as the INCB meets with certain CSOs who adopt positions running counter to those of the government; confidentiality is required in order to conduct an open dialogue.

A wide range of questions from CSOs included one from IDPC, asking whether, in the light of INCB’s recent acknowledgement that decriminalisation and proportionality are within the terms of the conventions, the Board could produce a document supporting the options and explaining how they could be translated into practice. Mr Sipp stated that the INCB had repeatedly elaborated on the issues of proportionality and decriminalisation, and would continue to do so.

Marie Nougier (IDPC) questions the INCB at the Informal Dialogue with Civil Society meeting

The Transnational Institute, which quoted the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 2016 UNGASS, who had stated that that ‘indigenous peoples should be allowed to use drugs in their traditional or religious practices’. The questioner asked Mr Sipp if he agreed that there exists a legal conflict between the Single Convention and human rights? The answer was refreshingly frank: this was ‘an extremely difficult question’, requiring much closer dialogue between the treaty bodies in Vienna and Geneva. ‘If I stayed in my post longer,’ declared Mr Sipp, ‘I would reinforce the dialogue between these spheres’.

Unfortunately, though, Mr Sipp’s period of office comes to an end this year, and as yet we have little idea who will be his successor and what their stance will be. We can only hope that Werner Sipp is succeeded by somebody equally open minded and willing to continue the INCB’s recent focus on human rights – and its willingness to speak out against the excesses of governmental violence. Overall, the Board has acted as a progressive force at the 60th CND, which constitutes a major change from its role as the drug control dinosaur less than ten years ago.

IDPC will continue to monitor the discourse and practices of the INCB across this period of transition.

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