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The Commission on Narcotic Drugs on the final road to UNGASS 2016: Progress made, but a Long Way sti

One year ago, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) elaborated five main “asks” for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs – developed through consultations with our membership and partners. The UNGASS in New York is now just a few weeks away – so how close have we come to realising these demands?

The 59th Session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) closed at around midnight on Tuesday 22nd March. This was one of the final stepping stones on the road to UNGASS and after protracted negotiations and bargaining, the member states present finally agreed on an outcome document for the General Assembly to adopt in April. It was a tense 10-day meeting in Vienna, with country delegations locked in closed “informal” meetings for most of the time. These discussions were heated and frustrating, but most delegations seem to have come away feeling some satisfaction over the gains that had been made. Overall, the outcome document is a world away from the honest, forward-looking and concise document that IDPC had called for. But it does demonstrate progress in a number of areas: several smaller “wins”, rather than a revolution. Technically the outcome document can be re-opened and re-negotiated at the UNGASS in a few weeks – but given the diplomatic pressure to sign the document as it is, this is unlikely to happen.

UN building in Vienna. Copyright: Marie Nougier, IDPC

Ask 1: Ensure an open and inclusive debate

Under this first “ask”, we called for an honest assessment of the failures of global drug policies over the past 50 years. We also called for an open debate including UN agencies, academia, civil society and affected groups. The results have been mixed.

One of the most positive outcomes from the UNGASS process has been the range of contributions submitted to the UNGASS website. These include submissions from 15 United Nations entities on how the drug control system impacts on their work. IDPC has explored the common themes and messages in these submissions – which included calls for the decriminalisation of people who use drugs from UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation, the UN Development ProgrammeUN Women and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The engagement of the wider UN family in the drug policy debate is to be welcomed and will hopefully leave a lasting legacy of greater system-wide coherence between the often conflicted goals of drug control, human rights, public health and sustainable development. Similarly, a wide range of civil society organisations also made submissions, as did regional groups such as the European Union and the African Union. However, given these many important contributions, it was disappointing to note that they had little, if any, impact on the negotiations. We were also thrilled that the President of the General Assembly agreed to preside over an Informal Inactive Stakeholder Consultation with over 300 civil society participants from all over the world on the 10th February which led to a lively and overwhelming progressive debate. He submitted a summary of the dialogue as a contribution to the UNGASS preparations but again, we do not feel that his excellent summary was adequately considered by the government negotiators.

In fact, the actual negotiations on the UNGASS outcome document were conducted behind closed doors through a non-inclusive and, at times, seemingly deliberately confusing process presided over by the UNGASS Board. Civil society was excluded from observing. Even European Union officials and the South African Deputy Minister of Social Development were asked to leave the room at one point! Towards the end of the CND, discussions were only being held bilaterally between selected countries, with other delegations unaware of what was happening or what was being agreed.

Procedural concerns led a group of civil society organisations to release a joint statement on the opening day of the CND stating that “the UNGASS is now perilously close to representing a serious systemic failure of the UN system… an expensive restatement of previous agreements”.

As a result, the outcome document itself is not a realistic or forward-looking reflection of the current drug policy environment, and fails to reflect many of the submissions made by UN entities, member states and others. Instead, it blindly applauds that “tangible progress has been achieved” with little indication of what progress is being referred to. Interestingly, the word “measurable” was removed during the negotiations.

ASK 2: Re-set the objectives of drug policies

Disappointingly, the outcome document reaffirms the archaic and unachievable goal of “a society free of drug abuse” – language that was ultimately accepted by progressive member states in return for the text on harm reduction (see below). But at least the document does welcome the Sustainable Development Goals as “complementary and mutually reinforcing” to drug control, and recommends “the use of relevant human development indicators”. But the proposed paragraph which included a call to “identify quantifiable indicators… in line with the integrated and balanced approach” [as included in the 25th February draft] did not survive the negotiation process. Crucially though, there is a specific mention of the target to end the HIV epidemic by 2030 “among people who use drugs” which was hard fought for after agreement could not be reached to note that the 2015 target to reduce HIV transmission by 50% among people who inject drugs had been missed.

One important shift that is represented in the outcome document is a move away from the narrow three pillar structure of “demand reduction”, “supply reduction” and “countering money-laundering and promoting judicial cooperation to enhance international cooperation” of the 2009 Political Declaration. There are now seven different themes, and the real progress is a specific heading on “ensuring the availability of and access to controlled substances” as well as one on “cross-cutting issues: drugs and human rights, youth, children, women and communities”.

Plenary room at the 59th Session of the CND. Copyright: Marie Nougier, IDPC

ASK 3: Support policy experimentation and innovation

This has been the elephant in the room throughout the preparations, with the reliance on consensus-based decision making essentially prohibiting any mention of the shifts in cannabis policy that have been made in Uruguay and some US states. The outcome document is therefore silent on these issues, although several of the country statements were more open and supportive – as documented in the CND Blog. The questions that these developments on cannabis policy raise in terms of tensions with the UN treaties were also largely ignored. In the IDPC UNGASS Asks document, we called for an Expert Working Group to be commissioned in advance of the UNGASS to explore the key issues in relation to the UN drug conventions. While this idea was discussed within several member state forums, most notably the Cartagena group, it did not make it into the outcome document. The lack of a genuine process to address and find ways to resolve these arising tensions with the UN treaties is of concern as we start looking towards the process of 2019 when a new Political Declaration and Action Plan on drugs will need to be negotiated.

ASK 4: End the criminalisation of the most affected populations

Although the word “decriminalisation” was kept far away from the text, the outcome document does include calls for “the development, adoption and implementation… of alternative or additional measures with regard to conviction or punishment”. It also states that the “the three international drug control conventions… allow for sufficient flexibility for States parties to design and implement national drug policies according to their priorities and needs”. This latter point was elaborated during the week by Werner Sipp, the President of the International Narcotics Control Board, in a positive discussion with civil society. He stated that the conventions do not require the criminalisation of drug use, and that the Portuguese model of decriminalisation was in line with this reading. Furthermore, references to proportionality were also secured for the first time, both in the outcome document and in one of the CND resolutions put forward by the European Union.

Committee of the Whole at the 59th Session of the CND. Copyright: Marie Nougier, IDPC

However, one of the greatest disappointments of the outcome document was the inability, as with the 2014 Joint Ministerial Statement, to mention abolishing death penalty for drug offences. This was a “red line” for the European Union and its allies, but it was ultimately not possible to find any consensus language. In the final CND plenary session, late on Tuesday evening, several countries made statements once the outcome document was adopted. Amongst these, the European Union (alongside countries such as Turkey, Switzerland, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and Norway) expressed their disappointment at the omission of the death penalty once again. Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia and others presented a counter-statement stating that the death penalty is not within the mandate of the CND, but a criminal justice matter for sovereign states. We anticipate that this will continue to be a prominent dividing issue at the UNGASS itself in New York.

ASK 5: Commit to the harm reduction approach

Once again, this was a mixed result – a small “win” rather than the revolution that was needed. On the one hand, many supportive member states were satisfied that the outcome document included specific references to naloxone and overdose prevention, “medication-assisted therapy programmes” and “injecting equipment programmes” (the latter two representing compromise language for opioid substitution therapy and needle and syringe programmes in one of the final paragraphs to be agreed). This was the furthest that any drug policy statement from Vienna has gone, and came alongside an endorsement of the WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS Technical Guide which outlines a harm reduction package.

On the other hand, member states were once again tragically unable to find a consensus around the term “harm reduction” itself. This is a common theme at the CND in Vienna, but it is additionally disappointing this time around given that the outcome document is supposed to be a General Assembly document. In New York, the term harm reduction has been widely endorsed and agreed, most prominently in the 2001 and 2011 Political Declarations on HIV/AIDS – as demonstrated by the E-Book of Authorities.

As is the case for all of the IDPC “asks”, there is still a great deal of work to be done on this particular issue.

By Jamie Bridge , First published on



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