Side event: Edging forward – How the UN’s language on drugs has advanced since 1990

Organised by Mexico, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO)

Ambassador Alicia Buenrostro Massieu (Mexico). It is my pleasure to welcome you all today to this event on the margins of the thematic discussions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, dedicated to the implementation of the UNGASS outcome document. While I am aware that it is not common for side events to be held during intersessional meetings, the Government of Mexico is pleased to sponsor this activity, which reflects the growing interest and commitment of non-governmental organizations and academia in responding to the call made in the UNGASS outcome for them to contribute to the implementation of the operational recommendations, in close partnership with Member States, the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations.

I don’t wish to take much of your time, since I believe we are all looking forward to hearing the presentations by our panelists from the International Drug Policy Consortium, the Center for Legal and Social Studies, and the Transnational Institute, on the evolution of the language the international community has agreed on in a number of documents addressing the world drug problem since 1990.

Despite the fact that the reality of the world drug problem is much more complex, those of us in the multilateral setting know how important language can be. UNGASS 2016 represented a paradigm shift in the international debate on drugs. Progress on how we refer to issues such as harm reduction, human rights, development or proportionality has come a long way, and reviewing this evolution can also shed some light on the way forward.

I would therefore like to conclude by recalling another example of how much language has progressed in the lead up to the UNGASS document, by recognizing “that civil society, as well as the scientific community and academia, plays an important role in addressing and countering the world drug problem, in the formulation, implementation (…)”, and, as we can attest to here today, “providing relevant scientific evidence in support of the evaluation of drug control policies and programmes”.

Credit: Ann Fordham, IDPC

Jamie Bridge (IDPC). IDPC is a global network of more than 170 NGOs who come together to advocate for more human drug policies. IDPC has been heavily engaged in the UNGASS process to support civil society to play a strong role – which it did. We have produced a series of reports to document, digest and analyse the UNGASS outcomes. These include our Proceedings Report from the UNGASS itself, as well as our regular Proceedings Report from each CND, a guide on how the outcome document can promote criminal justice reform, a guide for NGOs on how to capitalise on the UNGASS outcomes, a report on lessons learned from NGO participation in government delegations, our position paper on what comes next in 2019, and finally this report: Edging Forward – How the UN’s language on drugs has advanced since 1990. In this report, we worked with TNI and GDPO to look at the agreed language at the UN since 1990 – in order to look at the history and how the language has developed over time. We considered:

  • The 1990 Political Declaration and Global Programme of Action
  • The 1993 General Assembly Resolution
  • The 1998 Political Declaration and Guiding Principles
  • The 2003 Joint Ministerial Statement
  • The current Political Declaration and Plan of Action, agreed in 2009
  • The 2014 Joint Ministerial Statement
  • The 2016 UNGASS Outcome Document

We looked at all of these high-level UN declarations to try to assess trends in the language. We have a saying in the UK: “You can’t see the forest, for the trees”, which means that someone is too focused on the small details in front of them and does not see the bigger picture. After UNGASS, there was a general sense of disappointment about what we didn’t get in the document (such as references to harm reduction and the death penalty, for example). The advances and progress that was achieved did not sink in until a bit later. So we produced this report to look beyond the UNGASS and assess the direction of travel over nearly three decades. We looked at eight key areas: the success or failure of current approaches; harm reduction; human rights; development; civil society engagement; flexibility in the drug conventions; access to medicines; and UN system-wide coherence. These eight topics were most relevant to our membership and the most interesting to analyse.

Credit: Ann Fordham, IDPC

I will talk to the harm reduction aspects now, as I started my own drug policy career working in a needle and syringe programme in the UK. The term ‘harm reduction’ has never been agreed by member states in here in Vienna, which has been an overriding disappointment for many. Yet from the UNGASS, we do now have specific mention of key harm reduction interventions such as “injecting equipment programmes” (or needle and syringe programmes as they are known everywhere else) and medication-assisted therapy. At the Special Session itself, 46 member states spoke in favour of the harm reduction approach, and just two countries explicitly spoke out against harm reduction. This is progress. We may not have got the exact language, but it was an improvement on 2009 where “related support services” was the closest consensus that could be reached. The German delegation released a statement at the adoption of the 2009 Political Declaration, on behalf of 25 other countries, to say that they would interpret “related support services” to mean harm reduction. “Programmes to reduce the adverse consequences on drug abuse” was the language in 1998. But going back to 1990, the Political Declaration requested WHO to continue supporting “programmes to reduce risk and harm”.

So the 2016 UNGASS is the most explicitly supportive language we have, but looking ahead harm reduction will remain contentious in Vienna. This is disappointing because it is an anomaly within the UN: harm reduction has been agreed language for decades at the General Assembly in the context of HIV, and is routinely used by all other relevant UN agencies and bodies. For 2019, we hope that the gains in the UNGASS can be consolidated – including the seven-theme structure and explicit support for harm reduction interventions. It is really important that supportive member states continue to talk about “harm reduction” in their statements at the CND. We have noticed that a few of the supportive countries have stopped doing so, but we urge them not to keep this approach firmly on the agenda in Vienna. We also would like the relevant UN agencies to produce normative guidance to help member states define and implement the “medication-assisted therapy” that is referenced in the UNGASS document. I hope that the ideological impasse over harn reduction can eventually be overcome based on the concept of UN system-wide coherence. Thank you for coming to this event, and I hope that you find time to read the report and that it is useful for you.

Luciana Pol (CELS). I welcome this document and congratulate the authors. It allows us to see the trajectory and it is very helpful. It walks us through all the declarations and highlights the human rights trends. Early engagement here in CND was surprising regarding the lack of attention to human rights, but the same is true of the human rights bodies which also failed for a long time to address the drugs issues and the impact on human rights. From 2014, we started to see progressive engagement from the human rights mechanisms on the drugs issue also in Vienna which has been positive. The report is valuable in telling us the story behind the processes – such as some things that didn’t make it into the final documents, but are good to know about. For example, the story of Uruguay’s resolution in 2008 on human rights and the challenge at the time for the CND to accept human rights concepts.

The UNGASS outcome document contains many progressive mentions of human rights, such as references to proportionality and torture. Also the recognition of the socio-economic dimensions of involvement in the drug trade beyond cultivation. This gives us a fuller understanding of the social dimension of the problem and the link to social and economic rights. It also includes the link to drug-related crime and violence – which represents an openness to the human rights dimension of the problem. In addition, the data gathering aspects in tracking information relating to the promotion of human rights is also important.

One key impact of the UNGASS was in integrating and engaging other UN agencies. The UNGASS preparation process ended in the first ever resolution at the Human Rights Council on drugs and human rights – directly related to the invitation to other UN bodies to engage in the UNGASS preparations. This resolution promoted the first ever report from OHCHR analysing the relationship and links between drugs and human rights. The UNDP report was also important in this regard. There was also engagement from the Special Procedures with their rich expertise in this area: there are 65 Special Procedures, and 35 of them have made reference to drug issues in their reports. But only two have dedicated whole reports to this topic, so more can be done.

Looking forward, we must keep involving UN human rights agencies in these debates. Their expertise makes a difference, and they are analysing things from a different point of view. Bring the drug-related issues to the agenda of the human rights agencies as well. The human rights dimension is so much more complex than just drug use which we heard today. Further involvement of the human rights system is crucial. For example, in the topic of metrics to look at the impact on development.

There is also the Universal Periodic Reporting (UPR) process which every member state has to go through every four years. There is also the promotion of indigenous rights, the militarisation of security, and its impact on drug policies and human rights – the use of armed forces has a huge impact on the enjoyment of human rights.

If we use a historical view, we will find progress and have a stronger base from which to advance. Thanks to the organisers of the CND intersessionals for including civil society perspectives, and I invite delegations to promote their own inclusion of civil society, which especially enriches the debate in terms of human rights understanding.

Martin Jelsma (TNI). TNI has long been working on the link between drug policy and development. The assassination of Galan in Colombia in 1989 really triggered the start of this debate for countries where cultivation was an issue. It created a constitutional crisis in Colombia, alongside the breakdown of the international coffee agreement, meaning that Colombia lost $400m from coffee exports that year. One of the key topics at this time was the call for alternative development. This has been an appeal from the Latin Americans from the start of the UNGASS process. From the 1998 UNGASS onwards, there was formal recognition of the alternative development concept. There was a special Action Plan on international cooperation on alternative development agreed.

Successful alternative development requires “proper sequencing”, and this became a huge debate in the lead up to the 2009 Political Declaration. The issue of development aid was also discussed at length. The 2009 document included a quote on this, and since then not much progress has been made.

But in the UNGASS outcome document, there are four key areas of progress. Firstly, the drugs and development connection is treated in a separate section from eradication and law enforcement. They are treated in separate chapters which is an important step forward. Secondly, strong language about the involvement of communities was included, and it was the first time that farmers are mentioned in terms of their involvement. Thirdly, the document extends the scope of alternative development to the urban level. There is recognition that it is not only in rural settings but also in marginalised urban settings that the illicit market provides a safety net. Fourthly, the document underscores the importance of involving other agencies such as UNDP, ILO, FAO and other entities. The connection with the SDGs is also very relevant for continuing these debates at the international level.

However, not much progress has been made on indigenous rights. The High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed strong disappointment on this at the UNGASS itself. The reason why this has been such a delicate issue is that there is a clear conflict between the 1961 Convention and international human rights obligations. Speaking of such flaws in the treaties is like swearing in a church – so we rarely address faults in the treaties here in Vienna.

Over the three decades, there is also a disconnect with reality on the ground. The improved language with respect to the SDGs and alternative development creates a ‘virtual reality’ – it is still difficult to find genuine, successful alternative development projects. But the positive language keeps pushing the debate forward and also guides better implementation at the national level. The greatest progress at the UNGASS is in the emphasis on the SDGs and the calls to involve other parts of the UN.

Ian Hodges (Canada) – intervention from the floor. We are undertaking a similar exercise in Canada and updating our national drugs strategy and reviewing our past approaches. This report will be very informative. We will be looking for greater coherence and alignment with international documents such as the UNGASS outcome document. We will be reviewing the way we talk about drug use, abuse, misuse and addiction to be more person centred – we will also be using the term ‘people who use drugs’ instead of drug users, and will have harm reduction as core to our strategy.

Ian Tennant (UK) – intervention from the floor. This is a general question to the panel. You’ve given us a lot of detail and a strong case for the progress made in these areas. But what are your thoughts on bridging the gap between the work on the ground and the UN language. From the civil society perspective, what is the issue. Is it frustration that you aren’t being heard? Or that what is being agreed here doesn’t have an impact on the ground?


Jamie Bridge. It is a bit of both. We have frustration that domestic harm reduction approaches aren’t highlighted. That is disappointing. But the language agreed at the UN can have an important impact at the national level. For example, we work with colleagues on the ground in some African countries where harm reduction is just beginning, and the language that is agreed here really does have an impact on the ground.

Luciana Pol. From the Latin American side, with many of the terrible problems that we were seeing on the ground, it was frustrating to see that many of those topics were not being discussed at the UN level. Parts of the issue were heavily discussed here: the death penalty, the rights of drug users etc. But over-incarceration was not addressed. However, the Latin American delegations have worked tirelessly to bring attention to these issues over recent years – such as the issues of gender and women in prison.

Martin Jelsma. UN negotiations always lag behind progress on the ground. But you also see that countries that are struggling at the national level, and want to make changes usually start making appeals at the international level – trying to get consensus and address legal tensions. How much can we advance further on consensus negotiations between now and 2019? It will be hard to advance given that the consensus is broken on a number of issues. This may mean that smaller groups of countries will try to move forward despite the deadlock at the international level.

Lisa Sanchez (MUCD) – intervention from the floor. I want to raise two points that are important from the Latin American perspective: really defining the public health approach and the definitions between drug use and drug abuse. I also participated on the official delegation of my country throughout the entire process. In Mexico we held a series of post-UNGASS dialogues to engage other parts of the government on the drug control implementation – not only law enforcement agencies. The UNGASS outcome document is also progressive in mentioning other legal instruments and agreements (such as CEDAW and the Tokyo Rules), and the need for due process and to address over-incarceration.

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