A Lost Opportunity

TNI Briefing
June 1998

United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS)
New York, 8-10 June 1998

The "United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem" held from 8 to 10 June in New York, did not bring any surprises. The drug summit adopted a global strategy to reduce illicit drug supply and demand by 2008. In the General Assembly room, it was an uninterrupted three day sequence of political speeches. All countries could give their own emphasis to the agenda items and present in seven minutes their own more general view on the drugs issue and their policies to deal with it. But, all in all, it has been a lost opportunity, no evaluation of current drug policies took place whatsoever, it was devoted to (as a New York Times editorial phrased it) "recycling unrealistic pledges". 

The political declaration and the guideline documents have all been adopted as negotiated at the final Preparatory Conference (PrepCom) in March in Vienna. Several delegates referred to it as a 'non-event', since nothing of substance was added to the PrepCom process. The General Assembly adopted a political declaration which commits governments to substantially reduce illicit drug demand and supply by 2008. The political declaration sets out a so-called 'comprehensive' global strategy for the simultaneous reduction of both illicit supply and demand.

The Assembly also adopted a declaration on principles of demand reduction to guide governments in setting up effective drug prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programmes. In addition, it adopted a series of measures to enhance international cooperation to eradicate illicit crops through alternative development; to counter money laundering; to tackle the manufacture, trafficking and abuse of amphetamine-type stimulants; to promote judicial cooperation and to strengthen the control of precursor chemicals.

The political declaration requires governments to implement new strategies and programmes to reduce drug demand and new laws to counter money laundering by 2003. It also requires governments to adopt new measures to increase cooperation between judicial and law enforcement authorities within five years on extradition, mutual legal assistance, transfer of proceedings, controlled delivery, and illicit traffic by sea.

Governments also agreed to implement an action plan by 2003 against the manufacture, trafficking and abuse of amphetamine-type stimulants and to strengthen control of precursor-chemicals to reduce their diversion by 2008. Countries must also make real progress within 10 years to eliminate or significantly reduce crops of opium poppy, coca and cannabis.

NGO participation

Participation of civil society was very limited. Clearly, the Lindesmith Center initiative of the New York Times advertisement ("We believe the global War on Drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself" - signed by some 500 prominents, see Public Letter to Kofi Annan), strengthened with two well organized press conferences, attracted the bulk of press attention for the 'alternatives' side. But inside the UN Building NGO presence was seriously discouraged.

The NGO use of conference rooms inside was one of the most problematic issues. Under pressure from UNDCP, the Vienna NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs decided to retreat all NGO activities into the Church Center, basically in order to avoid any possible confrontation with UNDCP over certain panels they were not eager to see doing something within the building.

The issue of NGOs interventions (speaking time) in the "Ad-hoc Committee of the Whole" – where official delegates, UN and other international agencies, and guests assembled – remained completely vague until the Sunday afternoon just prior to the Monday morning opening session. Then the chair of the Committee communicated to the so-called NGO Committees on Narcotic Drugs (based in Vienna and New York) that he would give the floor to a number of NGOs -ideally representing certain constituencies- to speak for 5 minutes each, roughly indicating a number of some six slots.

This did – at the last minute – provide some opportunities to address directly the official delegates some dissident viewpoints. Omayra Morales of the Andean Council of Coca Producers (CAPHC) spoke on behalf of the coca-producers and Marsha Burnett, a former addict mother who lost custody over her children although she kicked off drugs, on behalf of consumer organizations. 

Their interventions before the Committee of the Whole, late Monday afternoon, made a visible impact. The rumourous huge conference hall, where many delegates where only half listening to the proceedings, suddenly fell completely silent when they started to address the official audience. Absolute attention and heads turning around to see who the hell was speaking, characterised the ten minutes of the two speeches together, ending even in applaus coming from the hallroom (not a common practice) when the two women gave each other the hand. 

It was obvious many delegates felt that here two people were talking who could really claim to talk in the name of many 'victims' of the drugs issue, on either far end of the drug-chain. Victims whose problems these delegates assume to be solving, whose voices had not been heard yet in this global summit and who now expressed severe criticism about what the UNGASS was about to decide. A clear moment when the hypocracy of the event became briefly apparent and perceptible, even to the ones who were running the show.

The joint panel "Drug War in the Andes" of TNI, Acción Andina, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Andean Council of Coca Producers (CAPHC) on Tuesday, June 9, was a crucial event for two reasons. Firstly, it represented a bureaucratic victory in the battle for NGO participation inside the UN building, a last minute recognition of the fact that there simply wasn't any solid argument for obstructing our presence inside. Secondly, it provided an opportunity for all our Andean guests to express their concerns before a mixed audience of governmental delegates, press and other NGOs, and have a direct (and lively) opportunity to discuss in this setting some of the key issues like SCOPE, the problematic aspects of 'Alternative Development', the US-driven militarization of anti-drugs policies, the impact of aerial fumigations, etc. A more extensive replay of this forum was organized the day after UNGASS, Thursday the 11th, in Washington DC.

SCOPE exit?

The controversial strategy to eliminate coca and opium poppy cultivation by the year 2008 (SCOPE – Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination) of the UNDCP was carefully avoided during the Special Session. It was clear beforehand that the reluctance of potential SCOPE-donor countries during the last PrepCom had already prevented that SCOPE as such was part of the official UNGASS agenda, but it was even further off than expected. From UNDCP side the very word 'SCOPE' wasn't even mentioned. The UNDCP consciously decided to avoid further contamination of UNGASS by the controverses that arose in reaction to the SCOPE-plan.

Of course, in many ways, references were made to the 'need for a global strategy' and the 'viability of achieving a significant reduction of illicit crop production by 2008'. Similar wordings remained in the adopted Political Declaration, which expresses support for UNDCP to architect and direct such a strategy, giving executive director Pino Arlacchi the much wanted mandate to continue along the SCOPE-path.

But it was quite apparent UNDCP had felt the necessity to ajust their tactics and soften their language. Just three months ago Arlacchi, defending SCOPE, could be quoted saying "The 'war on drugs' has not been fought and lost; it has never started." Now in New York he stated, very carefully, "There has never been a war on drugs – and there should not be one now. I think we all agree – the drug problem is more like a disease. And together we have to cure the patient, hit at the traffickers and criminal groups, and provide an alternate way of life to those engaged in illicit cultivation."

The paper Caught in the Crossfire - Developing Countries, the UNDCP and the War on Drugs, jointly published by The Transnational Institute and the Catholic Institute of International Relations (CIIR), clearly made an impact. It was the only available serious critique on one of the most controversial issues in the background of this UNGASS. Next to the reluctance of several delegations, it's fair to say that our campaign around it did at least contribute to the softening of language from UNDCP side and their very careful handling of the SCOPE-issue at press conferences.

This is not to say that the SCOPE-plan has been derailed, sofar the process has only been slowed down. Probably in September a first meeting of a working group will be organized, consisting of representatives of major donor countries and major recipient countries, to discuss how to reshape the original proposal. This consultation process should lead to an adapted global plan (which may not even carry the name SCOPE anymore), to be presented for approval at the next session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, scheduled for March 1999. Likely, an intersessional CND meeting will be convened around half November to debate progress of this and other UNGASS-follow-up matters.