Veneer of consensus masks deep disagreement on global drug policy

Trump to host UN meeting on drug policy
John Walsh, Ann Fordham, Martin Jelsma & Hannah Hetzer
Saturday, September 22, 2018

donald trump ungaOn September 24, President Trump will begin his appearance at the UN General Assembly by hosting an event on the “World Drug Problem.” Only delegates of those UN Member States that have signed a document circulated by the Trump administration – a “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem” – will be invited to attend. At the event, delegates will have the opportunity to pose for a group photograph with President Trump before he, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and UN Secretary General António Guterres provide remarks.

The UN setting for this event provides the veneer of multilateralism and global accord. But these trappings of multilateralism should not be mistaken for a new-found global drug policy consensus. To the contrary, the UN staging is belied by major procedural and substantive problems with the Trump administration’s so-called “Global Call to Action.” The document that the U.S. government is circulating – and heavily pressuring reluctant countries to sign – is explicitly “not open for negotiation.” Far from an effort at achieving mutual understanding and genuine consensus, it is an instance of heavy-handed U.S. “with us or against us” diplomacy.

Quite a few governments that have enacted progressive drug policy reforms have apparently decided to sign the U.S. “Call to Action” – not because they agree with it, but because they prefer not to risk antagonizing Trump, who has already shown the world that he is both impulsive and vindictive. Often after intense debates and internal divisions, many countries have calculated that the risks entailed in signing such a statement were outweighed by the potential diplomatic consequences of not signing.

quote trump blogIndeed, for some countries, the threat is not merely implicit. As part of the annual U.S. drug cooperation “certification process” Trump last week pressured Mexico, Colombia, and Afghanistan to “redouble” their efforts “in stopping and reversing drug production and trafficking” or face U.S. sanctions. Countries such as Canada and Mexico find themselves in the midst of sensitive trade negotiations with the Trump administration, and may view signing the document as placation, not endorsement.

Substantively, this non-negotiable document diverges significantly from the latest consensus within the UN drug policy debates – including the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) Outcome Document. The U.S. “Call to Action,” despite paying lip service to the 2016 UNGASS and to human rights, is greatly at odds with these recent advances, both in terms of what the document fails to mention and in terms of what it emphasizes. 

The document makes no mention of the Sustainable Development Goals or of development more broadly, which is highly problematic given the international consensus on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which forms the overarching UN framework for the coming decade. Similarly, it omits any mention of key UN agencies that have made significant contributions to the drug debate over the past years, including the UN Development Program, UNAIDS, UN Women, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR, which just published its second landmark report on drugs and human rights). This is especially problematic given that the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the UN Human Rights Council in June. 

As troubling as what the document omits is what it contains and highlights. Crucially, the Trump administration outlines a four-pronged strategy on which signatories pledge to base national action plans. The “four-prongs” are essentially a return to the previous thematic division of the outdated 2009 UN Political Declaration (demand reduction, supply reduction and international cooperation) with the addition of “treatment efforts to save lives and promote recovery” as a fourth area of priority attention – no doubt prompted by the dramatic opioid overdose crisis in the U.S. Furthermore, while the Global Call does not reinstate new target dates, it reverts to the “elimination” language that many countries have tried to move away from. In the “four-pronged strategy” the word “reduce” is used for the demand side, but on the supply side the phrasing is to “cut off the supply” and “stopping” production and cultivation. This risks the escalation of repressive eradication measures, especially since no reference is made to human rights or development within the four prongs. 

This approach is a clear move away from the hard-won seven themes of the 2016 UNGASS Outcome Document, and the prominence given to human rights considerations, access to controlled medicines and the broader development agenda. Based on his own words, President Trump is the last person who should be defining the global debate on drug policy. From his support of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war to his call for the death penalty for people who sell drugs, Trump has made plain his utter disdain for human rights and international law.

That said, there is a real risk that a large number of signatories could provide the appearance of widespread agreement on the contents of the so-called “Global Call to Action.” The Trump administration – working with countries like Russia and others that would prefer to pursue draconian, zero-tolerance approaches unencumbered by references to human rights – could then seek to use this “Call to Action” to distort the discussion now underway on a new UN drug declaration in 2019. With that risk in mind, it is crucial to underscore that proper UN documents and regional statements are the products of negotiation and consensus. This so-called “Global Call to Action,” by contrast, flies in the face of regular UN processes, and it cannot and should not be afforded the legitimacy of a consensus-based UN document.

It is also important to highlight that a notable group of countries has managed to withstand the diplomatic duress and decided not to join Trump’s “Global Call to Action” to avoid any association with his controversial views and to prevent potential fall-out from his initiative on the ongoing preparations for the UN drug policy review in 2019. Trump’s September 24 photo-op doesn’t point to a new-found consensus, it just papers over deep disagreements, which will not go away. As the September 24 event recedes in time, civil society and governments must be vigilant to ensure that hard-won recent advances are not upended by this deeply problematic “Global Call.”

Finally, it is worth noting that on the same day that Trump will host the event at the UN, a distinguished group of former heads of state will be pushing for exactly the opposite of Trump’s retrograde policies. The Global Commission on Drug Policy – comprised of former Presidents and Prime Ministers of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, East Timor, Greece, Malawi, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, Portugal, and Switzerland – will be launching their new report Regulation: The Responsible Control of Drugs, which examines how governments can take control of currently illegal drug markets through responsible regulation, and calls for a reform of the prohibition-based international drug control system. The contrast between the innovative, forward-looking approach of the Global Commission report and Trump’s backward-looking drug war dogma is striking.