Will somebody finally tell the thruth about world drug policy? [interview]

The aim of the UNGASS was to have a broad, open debate with all UN member states involved and that has not happened. Marcin Chałupka interviews Ann Fordham.
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Marcin Chałupka: What is your opinion of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) preparation process?

Ann Fordham: It is no secret that many civil society organizations, and particularly the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) which is a growing network of nearly 150 civil society organizations, had high hopes that, at this session, governments would commit themselves to an honest and open debate about the remaining challenges of international drug control. We feel very frustrated with the process so far. There was a resolution on the UNGASS process last year at the CND (also adopted by the UN General Assembly at the end of 2015) that called for an open and inclusive process involving all stakeholders. In actual fact, this has not been the case on a numbers of levels.

First of all, since January the UNGASS board has taken the negotiations into what they call ‘informals’, closed sessions from which the IPDC and other civil societies are excluded. Also effectively excluded are other UN entities and UN member states that do not have permanent representation based in Vienna. Such entities have struggled to engage in the process since the beginning. Part of the problem is the decision made to lead the process from Vienna, rather than to have the negotiations in New York where many more member states are represented.

What do you think about the ‘zero draft’ agreed at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND)?

is the Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). The IDPC is a global advocacy network that promotes open and objective debate on drug policies.

As a result of the way in which the process has been handled it has been neither inclusive nor transparent. This is a problem which is reflected in the draft policy document which this process is producing. Looking at the ‘outcome document’ we feel quite disappointed. Language expressing important policy statements, on harm reduction and intervention associated with harm reduction, are still being challenged, and mainly by Russia.

Part of the problem is the decision made to lead the process from Vienna, rather than to have the negotiations in New York where many more member states are represented.

Of course it is difficult to agree on the words ‘harm reduction’, but even reference to widely-supported interventions, such as needle and syringe programs, opiate substitution programs, treatment and overdose prevention in one specific paragraph, is being held hostage by Russia. They would not approve it. These interventions have already appeared in previous policy documents coming from the CND. They have a resolution on overdose prevention that was already agreed upon several years ago, so why is it difficult to understand now? They are supposed to be negotiating the document provided by the General Assembly, which agreed on the words ‘harm reduction’ fifteen years ago in the political declaration on HIV and Aids in 2001. So here we are, fifteen years later, and we can’t use the words ‘harm reduction’? The policy concept behind this language is that governments have a responsibility to reduce the harm associated with drug use, whether in addition to or in the alternative to the responsibility to control supply and demand. All the effort that they’ve put into trying limit or reduce drug use and to eradicate the drug trade, all that money, effort and resources, all the damage that that approach has caused has not been successful. Why is it so difficult to just simply say we need to focus on reducing the harm associated with drug use’, and make a commitment to do so here in this session in Vienna? It seems so regressive.

Are there other issues which are proving controversial?

Of course, there are countries that are fighting the good fight for this recognition, but in Vienna they operate by consensus, so in the end they all have to agree, as we say, on ‘the lowest common denominator’. Harm reduction is one of the key issues, but other human right issues abound. For example, the death penalty will probably suffer the same fate. We have never seen any language on the effectiveness or acceptability of the death penalty for drug offenses appearing in the consolidated drafts of the outcome document. We know that language has been proposed by the European Union and by Switzerland, but that language was never put into the consolidated draft. I don’t know to what extent it will be negotiated again, because it is not acceptable to countries like China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia – they’re just not willing to have anything that makes reference to the death penalty and its links to drugs offences.

So who is pressing, now, to finalize the ‘zero draft’ here in Vienna? Is it Russia, or a group of countries influenced by Russia? Would it be a problem for the diplomats here in Vienna to return to their countries without managing to finalize the draft? Is it just a problem with the way in which the UN is organized?

It is not just Russia. Most of the governments want to try and finalize this text here in Vienna. And it is due, partly to problems in the UN system. Clearly, diplomats here in Vienna do consider it a failure if they cannot negotiate the final text. The process will have to move to New York, that’s one problem. The other problem is the concern that heads of state or high level officials would not go the UNGASS if a final document is not already on the table. As a civil society network we have been saying to member states ‘you need to give yourself more time’. Why rush to finalize the text here? If consensus cannot be found on certain parts of the text then they should leave open those paragraphs that are disputed, to be discussed in New York. One question that we’ve been asking them from the beginning is; how can this be a General Assembly process if everything is completed here in Vienna?

Language expressing important policy statements, on harm reduction and intervention associated with harm reduction, are still being challenged.

The aim of the UNGASS was to have a broad, open debate with all UN member states involved and that has not happened. Everything has been controlled here. Strong member state vested interests are active here and the CND and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have vested interests too, we would argue. Our perspective is that they see their mandate under threat and came to Vienna to protect it from a possible progressive shift in approach. They want to finalize it all here in Vienna, so that the subsequent General Assembly proceedings in New York will just be a signing ceremony. I don’t think that is what the governments that called for this UNGASS envisioned. They wanted it to be a real General Assembly debate. It is not necessarily true to say that it would have been more progressive at the General Assembly, it would also be a tough crowd with even more countries involved, but at least it would have been more inclusive.

Have there been any positive outcomes from the UNGASS preparation process? Is there a possibility that an eventual plan of action would be more progressive and we’ll see an inclusion of terms such as ‘harm reduction’, ‘death penalty abolition’?

There are several things to say about that. Firstly, we are really disappointed in the ‘outcome document’, though there are some areas of progress that must be acknowledged. For example there has been real progress on the issue of access to essential medicines. This is because civil society colleagues and academic colleagues have been working hard on this issue for the last two or three years. It’s not a controversial issue really, so there would be, I believe, good language on access to controlled medicines in this outcome document. That is a win. There might be some language on the need for proportional sentences for drug offences, which will be a step forward, if that language survives. After the outcome document is accepted we will have to do that analysis and look back, to the last UNGASS and to previous commitments, in 2009 and 2014, in order to see what the real areas of progress have been.

What should civil society organizations do after UNGASS, what are the prospects for civil society, for governments and for drug policy reform?

Although it has been frustrating, there have also been some really positive developments. I think, as civil society organizations, we will need to regroup and join in the process towards the 2019 session, which will start early next year. There is not much time. I think civil society should feel good about the visibility, engagement, and the building of a global movement of civil society organizations in the lead up to this UNGASS. The movement has grown exponentially in the last two to three years, bringing new actors from different sectors, really getting the development and criminal justice NGOs on board. In 2009 this wasn’t the case; it was quite a niche movement. So we need to build on that momentum, and consolidate the power of this movement going forward to 2019. The involvement of a broader range of UN agencies has also been a really positive thing. Previously, the UNODC had monopolized this area. But now we’ve really seen the UN Development Programme come to the table, the office of the high commissioner for human rights has been a very strong participant, and the World Health Organization Executive Board and UNAIDS have also demonstrated a strong contribution to the UNGASS in December 2015, calling for the removal of criminal sanctions for people who use drugs. In fact, all the UN agencies, basically, have now called for this.

Has this process offered any insight into the role the UN plays in global drug policy?

The message for those member state representatives who are negotiating upstairs is that the world outside is changing. Canada, for instance, is going to regulate cannabis on a national level. From what I understand, they are not going to engage in a flimsy flexibility argument. I believe that they accept that this is a breach of certain unreformed UN conventions, though they claim it is a necessary breach. They will find a way to continue international cooperation, but they don’t believe that criminalizing people for cannabis use is worthwhile, it is actually counterproductive to their efforts to protect their youth from cannabis abuse. If the UN debate cannot adapt to the challenges that we face then they risk becoming irrelevant. The world will change anyway.

Hopefully there will not be a war with Russia, for example…

[easy-tweet tweet=”If the UN debate cannot adapt to the challenges that we face then they risk becoming irrelevant. “]

The point is that we do invest a lot of time and effort and we should, particularly those of us who have a mandate to be here in Vienna, be holding governments accountable. Drug control is highly centralized, there’s a lot of commitment to the UN conventions on drug control, particularly by the most repressive regimes in the world. It is important to come here and to challenge complacency.. If they want a UN drug control system that is based on shared responsibility and cooperation, they should be working to make that system relevant and to try to modernize the system rather than just covering their ears and eyes and sticking to business as usual.

So you think we should modernize the UN as a whole? Does the UN need revolutionary change?

When I said modernize, I was referring specifically to the international drug control system. I believe in a multilateral system, even though it is challenging, bureaucratic and expensive. That is why we invest time and effort here trying to make it work, to make it function and to call for accountability and for a system-wide coherence. At the national level, for instance, drug control objectives can undermine public health objectives, human rights objectives and development objectives. They always talk about a single UN, but this is not the case with drugs. They have just made great commitments, in the general assembly in September 2015, to sustainable development goals, but in the ‘informals’ of the UNGASS they are behaving as if this has not even happened. These are some very serious issues and I think that, if this outcome document falls far short of expectations, we can say that it represents a systemic failure of the UN. Especially when, as I mentioned above, all the UN agencies made very strong submissions, they call strongly for reform, they are pointing out all the damage, all the challenges and saying: ‘these issues need to be addressed’. And all this is being ignored, even though it is coming from UN agencies themselves.


is an activist, journalist, and drug policy expert. Between 2009 and 2013, he coordinated the activities of the Krytyka Polityczna club in Tricity. Since 2013, he has been working on the "East Drug Story" project in Krytyka Polityczna's centre in Warsaw.