In November 2018, the UN System CEB adopted the ‘UN system common position supporting the implementation of the international drug control policy through effective inter-agency collaboration’, expressing the shared drug policy principles of all UN organisations and committing them to speak with one voice. The CEB is the highest-level coordination forum of the UN system, convening biannual meetings of the heads of all UN agencies, programmes and related institutions, chaired by the UN SecretaryGeneral. The CEB’s mandate dates back to the early days of the formation of the UN system, when ECOSOC in 1946 requested the UN Secretary-General to establish a standing committee to coordinate the activities of the multiple specialised entities of the UN system. The resolution led to the establishment of the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), the predecessor of today’s CEB. 

The 2000 Millennium Summit represented the first significant streamlining of inter-agency structures, away from individual programme areas, and focusing on cross-sectoral policy objectives, such as sustainable development and gender mainstreaming. It marked ‘the beginning of a new phase, where the organizations of the system now have, in the United Nations Millennium Declaration, a single overarching policy framework, to which they are individually and collectively committed’. The CEB, the new name given to the ACC in 2001, ‘intended to reflect this new state of play and this collective commitment’: ‘The expression “Chief Executives Board” rather than Committee is meant to reflect the transition from a collection of organizations that come together to “compare notes”, to a collegial body whose participants share a collective responsibility for nurturing the new reality that the system has come to represent’. 

The subsequent 2005 World Summit Outcome Document called for ‘stronger system-wide coherence’ by strengthening linkages between the normative work of the UN system and its operational activities, and invited the UN Secretary-General ‘to launch work to further strengthen the management and coordination of United Nations operational activities so that they can make an even more effective contribution to the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals’.9 In response, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan set up the High-level Panel on UN System-wide Coherence, which published its report with recommendations in November 2006 under the title ‘Delivery as One’, focusing on the areas of development, humanitarian assistance and the environment. The work of the UN ‘is often fragmented and weak’ and, according to the Panel: ‘Inefficient and ineffective governance and unpredictable funding have contributed to policy incoherence, duplication and operational ineffectiveness across the system. Cooperation between organizations has been hindered by competition for funding, mission creep and by outdated business practices’. The Panel also called on the CEB to review its functions ‘with a view to improving its performance and accountability for system-wide coherence’, because although the CEB ‘has led to some improvement in interagency coordination […] the Board’s potential has been underexploited and its decision-making role has been underused’. 

The transition from the ‘Millennium’ to the ‘Sustainable’ Development Goals in 2015 was accompanied by a policy review of operational activities for development in the UN system, because ‘the integrated nature of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires a United Nations development system that works in a coordinated and coherent manner’. The General Assembly also requested the UN SecretaryGeneral to present proposals to improve the collective support of the UN development system for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, including through a more robust Resident Coordinator system.

Referring to the Secretary-General’s ‘overall vision to focus on root causes and the prevention of crises and vulnerabilities across all pillars’, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed ‘emphasized that tangible results achieved on the ground benefitting the people that the United Nations system served would be the true test of the reform efforts’. She underscored that the UN system ‘would have to embrace change in order to live up to the ambition set by Member States through the 2030 Agenda and other commitments’ and that ‘a common understanding of the direction of change was emerging towards a better coordinated, integrated and coherent country presence, with real accountability for system-wide results’.

Within this broader UN reform context, and following up on the outcomes of the 2016 UNGASS, the drugs issue came to the agenda of the CEB as one of the cross-cutting issues for which a more coherent approach needed to be developed. The resulting UN System Common Position on drug policy, released in January 2019, commits to ‘supporting Member States in developing and implementing truly balanced, comprehensive, integrated, evidence-based, human rights-based, development-oriented, and sustainable responses to the world drug problem, within the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. It supports ‘policies that put people, health and human rights at the centre’ and promotes ‘measures aimed at minimizing the adverse public health consequences of drug abuse, by some referred to as harm reduction’, ‘sustainable livelihoods through adequatelysequenced, well-funded and long-term developmentoriented drug policies in rural and urban areas affected by illicit drug activities’, and ‘alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use’. It also calls ‘for changes in laws, policies and practices that threaten the health and human rights of people’ and ‘to cooperate to ensure human rights-based drug control and address impunity for serious human rights violations in the context of drug control efforts’. The CEB members also committed to stepping up their joint efforts to ‘provide Member States with a necessary evidence base to make informed policy decisions and to better understand the risks and benefits of new approaches to drug control, including those relating to cannabis’. 

The CEB Common Position – not a binding document for Member States but a powerful instrument to harmonise the voice and activities of all UN entities – represents a significant step towards improving UN system-wide coherence and can guide the global drug policy debate towards a more health, development and human rights-based approach. Crucially, to ensure that the Common Position does not simply remain a piece of paper, a UN system coordination Task Team has been established to ensure that coherent efforts are undertaken to realise its commitments, and it will serve as an authoritative policy directive to UN Resident Coordinators for implementing drug-related programmes on the ground and assisting Member States in policy development. 

Achieving more system-wide coherence under the banner of ‘Delivering as One’ or ‘One UN’, and aligning with the overarching SDG framework has been a particularly difficult challenge in the area of drug policy. This briefing paper reconstructs the long and troubled process that led to the adoption of this ground-breaking UN System Common Position.