Home » Side Event: Celebrating 40 years of increasing and meaningful civil society engagement in international drug policy

Side Event: Celebrating 40 years of increasing and meaningful civil society engagement in international drug policy

Organised by the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs with the support of Australia, Czechia and the UNODC Civil Society Unit

Moderator: Jamie Bridge, VNGOC

Jindrich Voboril, National Drug Coordinator, Czech Republic

Civil society is the driving force in drug policy. The Czech Republic have just passed a bill to regulate drugs in regard to their level of harm. When we look at creating non-judgemental approaches, it most of the time comes from civil society. Civil society has very limited access to decision making processes. CND resolution 54/11 was a Czech resolution – the only one on civil society – we need to keep coming back to this. There are a few important quests ahead of us – to humanise drug policy. It’s very broad.

Mirella Dummar Frahi, UNODC Civil Society Unit

40 years is a lot of years – I have been invited as I have been invited to about 20 years. The VNGOC existed before the UNODC (which started in 1993) joined the crime section. Tomas was involved at that time. The UNODC Executive Director had a love/hate relationship with the VNGOC. We had meetings to see that there were no problems when civil society joined the building. With Michel, we had Beyond 2008, with the Canadian Centre of Substance Use. We needed it all in one basket – to make sure all NGOs work together. There are such a range of perspectives in drug policy.

Then we had another benchmark, when Esbjorn became the VNGOC Chair – leading the way to the UNGASS in 2016. This was quite a challenge, distributing badges. Vienna had a reputation of not being open to civil society – but in New York it was more difficult – it was all also part of the work. There are rules to follow to be meaningful and also be heard. Now we’ve put together a platform – the NGO Marketplace – we get updates on the platform every week. We are here as there is a world drug problem and drugs still kill. For me, the NGOs at a very early stage made us realise that there were problems with the conventions. People were saying, we can’t suffer any longer. I think all of you bring very important experience and knowledge and expertise to the table. The 2024 mid term session will be successful with the mention of the VNGOC in the resolution.

Michel Perron, CCSA & Former VNGOC Chair

Thank you, Jamie, and the VNGOC for allowing me to participate today and share a few remarks. I was very fortunate to Chair the VNGOC and the Beyond 2008 process and am pleased to share a few thoughts on our work then. At that time – then UNODC ED Maria Antonio Costa – would often remark that drug matters are too important to be left to governments alone.  And he is right.

However at that time we – civil society – was noisy but not often heard. Further this was a period where drug policy positions were hardening across a challenging ideological spectrum.  Including for many of the civil society entities that attended CND. The 2009 High Level segment which was to take stock on the progress committed to in 1998 of a “Drug free world – we can do it!” further amplified the gap between aspirational policy and reality on the ground.

Channeling Mr. Costa – we knew that the HLS was a key opportunity for civil society to come together and influence international drug policy. Civil society represents many voices – and that is one of our strengths. However, so many voices can make it hard to hear anything clearly and in fact, easier to dismiss us. Rather a unified voice would make us hard to ignore.  And with this in mind, the Beyond 2008 project was born.

VNGOC owes a debt of thanks to many people who made the Beyond 2008 project a reality – several of whom are in this room. Beyond 2008 was a pivotal moment for the VNGOC and the civil society community. We had 13 regional forums across the globe, engaged over 900 organizations from 135 countries.  300 of these came to Vienna to negotiate the Beyond 2008 declaration.

We led as we wanted to see the system being led. We defined common ground across a very diverse array of civil society representatives – and it wasn’t always easy.

On day one we hit a major stumbling block on whether or how to include the term harm reduction.  That evening at our reception, I was wondering if all of this would be for not. The next morning, we convened a small informal working group and in less than 1 hour, agreed on a common definition of harm reduction which allowed us to move forward in our deliberations. In the end, we defined further challenging language, argued and agreed on a common call to action. We called for specific recommendations of CND, UNODC, INCB, Member states and Civil Society.

Recommendations focused on the what we wanted to see happen and how it should take place – including a strong civil society participation. The majority of those Beyond 2008 have been adopted and inform how we work today.  Consider: INCB and country visits.  Informal dialogues. Etc.

Practically speaking that period saw the VNGOC transition from an informal committee to a registered Austrian entity.  During that time we worked hard to bring to life the Beyond 2008 recommendations. Our relationship with the NY NGO Committee also evolved and has continued to do so – especially as new leadership took up the mantle and re-energized the NY work.  This also laid the ground work for the Civil Society Hearing of 2016.

With a mid term review of the 2019 Ministerial declaration next year – the importance of bringing forward the voice of civil society cannot be overstated.   And VNGOC should be looked upon to bring that voice. I am so proud to see how the VNGOC has continued to flourish over the years and the exciting trajectory it is on. I applaud all VNGOC members for their participation both virtual and in person here at CND.  Your work matters so much to do many persons across the globe. I must thank UNODC and in particular Mirella for their support, friendship and collaboration.  Their guidance and support has been instrumental to our success.

I wish to thank the MS here today.  Without which the work of the VNGOC would be without effect.   Many MS have come to realize that civil society can be a powerful and strategic ally in the discharge of their work. I wish to thank my former organization CCSA for their support to the VNGOC over the years.  New CEO. As former chair, I benefited immensely from my predecessors and collaborators (Eva Tongue, David Turner, Esbjorn Hornberg and many others).

I compliment Jamie’s leadership and was thrilled to see such a rich list of candidates for future office.  Allow me to underscore the importance of their work ahead…and how your work today – continues to lay the groundwork for that success.

The CND is the place where decisions are made that affect everyone in the world. VNGOC has an importance place in this process and must capitalize on every opportunity to maximize its positive impact in that work.

I look forward to the next 40 years! Thank you

Esbjorn Hornberg, Movendi & Former VNGOC Chair

The space for civil society has been shrinking. During my work in Africa, I heard of the consultation in 2008, and I wasn’t very happy with it – so when the invitation came to Vienna, I took it. I was so impressed by the work of Michel and others at finding consensus. I had the opportunity to join the boarding, in 2014 the workload was immense in the lead up to 2016 UNGASS – even just to follow and join all the meetings – then suddenly he stepped down.

Michel had been here on Canadian delegation – he knew the diplomatic way, but I hadn’t had this experience. Now I had to be diplomatic – needed to move this organisation into UNGASS process. Before Michel left, they had decided there would be a Civil Society Taskforce (CSTF) – it was a challenge, to have a global, gender, age, thematic representation. We needed finances – we needed to give people from across the world the opportunity to attend. I needed to build a relationship with different agencies.  Luckily there were people on the board who could help me, alongside the membership of the VNGOC. One private donor came with money, some to the VNGOC and some to the UNODC – the latter one was difficult. The money was stuck in accounts that we couldn’t access. We needed to tell Fedotov [UNODC Executive Director at the time] that this is crazy – but were told he wouldn’t deal with it. In a meeting we said that we needed help from him – he looked surprised – and then suddenly we had the money. The UNGASS document discussion – should it be in New York or Vienna. I understood that we needed to have influence in NY, the chair in New York was a Danish guy – so I asked for a meeting, before we went to NY. We met and he understood what we needed to do, and how to have civil society involved in the meeting. At that time, they had appointed an Ambassador to follow the whole process. We agreed that the process was a success for civil society. There were two things that I couldn’t do though – to convince the member states, that even if they said positive things about civil society, it is useless if civil society is not given a voice at home in the national situation. It’s not the case everywhere. Another thing – to have something in the VNGOC where the people working directly on the ground could meet, to discuss, and find someway to move their own work further on. A quote: “Ever increasing civil society, pushing for action, is also necessary to push member states to live up to their promises”

Katherine Pettus, IAHPC

Thanks all – title of this is meaningful participation. When I started in this realm, civil society was not discussed.

I learned that 80% of the world had no access to medicines for pain relief – I was stunned by that fact. If an ambassador of a major EU country didn’t know that, not many would. I finally got to speak up at a Member State forum. We had to scrounge to get side events – had to beg to get sponsorship. Now there are many high-level side events on access to medicines. It was the focus of the session from the Belgian Ambassador. Member Sates make these wonderful commitments in resolutions – but this doesn’t always translate. Our funding for advocacy is drying up – it’s no seen as a priority. I wouldn’t’ve been able to do this without the VNGOC and the CSTF. We’re all on the same side – it’s our job to get member states to pay attention to us. It’s a miracle that VNGOC have been able to bring so many people to the table. We were all committed to having a say and being at the table. The situation in Geneva is harder now – we only get one minute to give civil society statements.

Matej Kosir, Utrip Slovenia

I’m a rare commodity – in three different roles – as member of delegation with Slovenia, but I’m primarily here as a CS representative, and as the Deputy Chair of VNGOC. I used to work for the government – I make jokes that they forgot to remove me from the list! There are windows of opportunity here that we must take advantage of.

The story I wanted to tell you – after I was introduced to civil society work. I was focusing on the field of prevention. Most of the discussions though, were on when the problem was already a burning issue. People were talking about social and learning skills, but that wasn’t being discussed here – so I said, is there any chance you can draft a resolution on this, early prevention. There were a lot of excuses. But then, when Slovenia was EU president, they wanted to do something at CND. So they decided to try the resolution. There were some difficulties understanding this in the CoW – but last year, the resolution was adopted by consensus – no country abstained. We urged member states to invest earlier in prevention – this will cost less than investing in adolescence. This is a story of how a small NGO can make a huge impact.


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