The Vienna NGO Committee set up an NGO dialogue with Antonio Maria Costa, the outgoing Executive Director of UNODC. The NGOs present turned up in good faith to engage with Mr Costa, perhaps wondering if there would be some statesman-like speech as leaves his 8-year long post later this year.
Mr Costa opened the discussion by reaffirming the comments he made in his opening speech on the first day of this CND. He underlined the need for health, balance and coherence in drug control before moving on to one of his top messages for this meeting – ‘drug neo-colonialism’. Mr Costa expressed very strongly his concern that rich nations have become complacent in the responsibility to tackle the drug problem because addiction rates in such countries have stabilised. He also suggested that this complacency was a result of the work of the ‘pro-drug lobby’. In the meantime, poor and marginalised drug addicts in poorer countries continue to suffer because of this neo-colonialism.
Mr Costa clearly supported the need to scale up access to essential medicines for pain relief. However, he was clear that this movement must not focus on the supply side issues and use this argument as a basis for justifying the continued levels of opium cultivation in Afghanistan as that is clearly a ‘back door for legalisation’. Instead, the focus must be on creating proper demand for such medicines through changing overly stringent legislation and educating doctors and health workers on this issue. He also referred to the recent paper from the UNODC Secretariat on human rights, for which he had received many positive comments and asked the NGOs to note this important contribution.
He concluded his opening remarks by highlighting that the UNODC is not a ‘debating society’ and was not concerned with ideological debates, saying that ‘We want a health-based drug policy’.
The floor was then opened to the NGOs present for questions and comments. Mr Costa was asked why, if he did not engage in ideological debates, did he insist on using divisive and unhelpful distinctions such as ‘drug neo-colonialism’ and the ‘pro-drug lobby’. Such expressions pit people against one another and do not support open and constructive debate. Mr Costa became openly contemptuous, dismissing the question and the person who asked it. He suggested that the focus should be on the real question of continuing drug problems in poor countries which perhaps some members of the audience (including the person asking the question) did not understand.
There were then a number of questions from the audience asking for clarification on Mr Costa’s often used term ‘the pro-drug lobby’. Who are these people? Are they in this room? Would Mr Costa include such organisations as the International AIDS Society who have supported an new publication from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation called ‘A Blueprint for Regulation’? Does Mr Costa think that calling people ‘pro-drug’ who do not see themselves as such but who actually advocate to reduce the harms relating to drugs and drug policies is in the spirit of partnership?
Mr Costa seemed very aggrieved by these questions and became defensive. He said that he didn’t know who the ‘pro-drug lobby’ were but he knew that they were out there. If you really want to find them, he advised, it would be easy – they have an open membership policy but he did not want to discuss them any further. He referred a few times to the constant attacks on him as a supporter of the unacceptable treatment of addicts such as extra-judicial killings and compulsory drug treatment. He argued that this has to stop as it is not the case.
In general the dialogue did not represent the spirit of open and constructive communication in which it was meant. Mr Costa did reaffirm his support for the ‘Beyond 2008’ process and continuing engagement with civil society. He commended the work of the Mentor Foundation and felt that UNODC perhaps had not done enough to engage with former drug users (although it seemed to be implied that current drug users were not ‘lucid’ enough for engagement). He also commended very highly the work of Human Rights Watch and confirmed that UNODC would follow up on the compulsory drug treatment issue in Cambodia following HRW’s recent report.
Mr Costa was thanked for his contribution over the past 8 years and the many sacrifices he must have made in a difficult and challenging role.