Diplomacy or denialism: World leaders heading towards monumental failure in tackling global drug problem at UN summit

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Diplomacy or denialism: World leaders heading towards monumental failure in tackling global drug problem at UN summit

13 March 2016

VIENNA (14 March 2016) — Over 200 civil society groups from all over the world have today released a statement condemning governments for failing to acknowledge the devastating consequences of punitive and repressive drug policies as they prepare for a UN summit on the issue next month.

In April 2016, world leaders will gather in New York to decide on the future of global drug policy, at the first UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS)[i] on the topic in two decades. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for this meeting to be a “wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options.” But as the preparations continue this week in Vienna at an annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), it is becoming clear that the ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to rethink the failed ‘war on drugs’ is unlikely to deliver.

“The global community had high hopes for this important opportunity for a considered re-think of how to control drugs, but by denying the realities on the ground and failing to admit a new approach is required, governments are at risk of squandering this rare moment,” warns Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium. “There is still time to rescue the process before the final summit in New York next month, but governments must be honest about the challenges and allow new thinking and new ideas”.

“This is an urgent issue. The focus on police and military actions to combat drug trafficking has impacted many communities, reaching levels of violence in some cases equivalent to civil war,” said Luciana Pol, Senior Fellow Security Policy and Human Rights at Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS). “The UNGASS cannot repeat the same old formulas. This is the time for the UN system to show its solid commitment to peace, human rights, and public health.”

The civil society statement entitled “Diplomacy or Denialism”, condemns the preparations so far, highlighting the following problems:

  • The lack of progress achieved by drug policies over the past 50 years has still not been honestly acknowledged. The last UNGASS on drugs in 1998 was held under the slogan “A drug free world: we can do it!,” yet nearly twenty years later drugs are more widely available and affordable than ever before, the drug market is dynamic and diversifying and criminal gangs are increasingly innovative and powerful.
  • The overwhelming evidence of the devastating consequences of punitive and repressive drug policies has not been brought to bear on the UN negotiations to date. These range from systemic human rights abuses committed in the name of drug control; the exacerbation of HIV and hepatitis C transmission among people who inject drugs; catastrophically low availability of controlled drugs such as morphine for pain relief; violence and corruption perpetuated by criminal drug markets; destruction of subsistence farmers’ livelihoods by forced crop eradication; the continued use of the death penalty for drug offences; and billions of dollars of public money wasted on enforcing policies that do not work.
  • Governments and the UN have failed to ensure an inclusive and transparent preparatory process[ii], and instead vested interests and a small group of regressive member states have dominated the negotiations. Challenges to the status quo, even from member states and many UN agencies, have been marginalised and dissent stifled.

The UNGASS is intended to be an honest and long overdue assessment of what is, and what is not, working in global drug control. Governments are gathered this week in Vienna, to continue their protracted negotiations on the UNGASS outcome document[iii]. To date, these negotiations have been non-inclusive and non-transparent – and the document currently ignores crucial recommendations and inputs from a number of governments, UN agencies, academics and civil society organisations.


Please direct any queries to:

Ann Fordham

Steve Rolles

Executive Director

Senior Policy Analyst

International Drug Policy Consortium

Transform Drug Policy Foundation

afordham@idpc.net | @annfordham

steve@tdpf.org.uk | @SteveTransform

+44 7970 034810

+44 7980 213943

Luciana Pol

Senior Fellow Security Policy and Human Rights

CELS – Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales


+44 7982 635588

Notes for media below:

[i] The UNGASS on the World Drug Problem will take place in New York from the 19th to 21st April. It was originally called for by Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala in 2012. At the time, these governments felt that an urgent debate on drug policy was needed. They stated at the General Assembly on 1st October 2012: “revising the//approach on drugs maintained so far by the international community can no longer be postponed”, and the UN needed to exercise leadership to "conduct an in depth review analyzing all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that would impede the flow of resources to organized crime groups". An international meeting had to be convened “capable of taking the decisions necessary to increase the effectiveness of the strategies and instruments with which the global community addresses the challenges of drugs and their consequences”. Declaración Conjunta, New York, 1 October 2012.


[ii] All the preparatory meetings have taken place in Vienna, where around 70 UN member states do not have any representation. This has effectively excluded them from the process. There has been no effect to rectify this by holding additional preparatory negotiations at the UN in New York.

[iii] For the past six months, governments have been meeting in Vienna to negotiate successive drafts of the UNGASS Outcome Document.