As the independent monitor of the international drug control system, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) must itself be held accountable for its actions. Civil society organisations have repeatedly called on the INCB, along with other United Nations bodies, to take a progressive and constructive role in leading the debate amongst member states about drug policies appropriate to 21st century drug markets.  

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Key concerns about the INCB

The failure of the Board to facilitate a constructive debate on drug control policies, and simplistic allegiance to the traditional model of drug control, has led to four key issues of concern arising from its activities:

Culture of secrecy

The Board operates in a cloud of secrecy, for example, all the Board’s missions, communications and letters (up to thousands each year) are confidential. There are no observers allowed at meetings of the INCB and no minutes are available, even to member states. The INCB lacks any accountability procedure and has arguably become the least transparent and most secretive body within the UN system. The secretariat of the INCB has often argued that its unique status within the UN system empowers it to operate this way. In fact, there are many UN mandated bodies with similar roles, that manage to operate more openly, and in closer co-operation with member states. The INCB needs to become a more transparent body, responsive to the concerns of member states and civil society actors, and helping policymakers navigate a course through the complex policy challenges that they face. Read more.

Inaccurate legal interpretation of the drug control conventions

As reflected in its annual reports and private letters to national governments, the INCB currently holds very rigid legal interpretations of the conventions that are not shared by other UN entities and legal experts. In acting as an inflexible guardian of what it interprets as the “spirit of the conventions”, the INCB generates tensions with some member states and other parts of the international drug control system. For example, when Bolivia withdrew from the 1961 convention and sought re-accession with a reservation on the prohibition of coca leaf chewing, it acted in compliance with the 1961 convention. Although the Board acknowledged that Bolivia’s actions were “technically permitted”, it condemned Bolivia for going against the “fundamental object and spirit” of the 1961 convention. Read more.

Selective focus

IDPC and its members have repeatedly expressed concern about the Board’s relative silence in situations where member states’ drug control activities appear to conflict with international standards on health and human rights. Yet the Board is active in condemning activities that do not significantly threaten health and human rights outcomes, for example in the case of Bolivia and coca leaf chewing.  The Board needs to take a more balanced view of what constitutes a threat to the implementation of the conventions, and to adopt a more collaborative and constructive approach in responding to reforms adopted by member states.  In situations where member states are breaching human rights standards in the name of drug control, the Board should be willing to engage in addressing those violations. For an example of concerns raised by civil society organisations on this issue, please see the letter to the INCB on capital punishment for drug offences.

Conflict with the WHO

In recent years, the INCB has overstepped its mandate by providing unsolicited scheduling advice to member states. This is particularly problematic because in all such cases the Board’s recommendations contradict those of the WHO—the UN body that has the mandate and responsibility for providing technical and scientific advice to member states on scheduling issues. See The International Narcotics Control Board: Current Tensions and Options for Reform, IDPC Briefing Paper 7, for detailed analysis.