Refreshing Costa's memory

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Today, June 8, it is 10 years ago that the world leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem. "A drug free world – We can do it!", was the slogan under which they met. Ten years later, Mr. Costa, the current director of the UNODC seems to deny that the UN ever used the phrase. Let us refresh Mr. Costa’s memory.

In the documentary, War without end, broadcasted by Irish TV recently, Costa said: "I would like to remind you that the United Nations never used the word 'a drug free world'. In no official documents of the United Nations you will find reference to 'a drug free world'." (Go to minute 28:27 of the documentary) Is this true or is it yet another one of Mr. Costa’s half-truths? True, it is not in the UNGASS political declaration or action plans, but it certainly was the slogan under which the UN tried to gather support to tackle the drug problem at the time.

I don’t remember seeing Mr. Costa in 1998 in New York. He was not there, I presume – but I was. The slogan was all over the place, on the special web page, in the press briefing kits and on the infamous poster shown here – and in the numerous speeches of the world leaders in the UN building, including then UN secretary general Kofi Annan at the beginning of the special session and Pino Arlacchi, executive director of the UNDCP (UNODCs predecessor) at the time, at the end. The evidence is abundant, and also in the official documents.

For instance in the Official Records of the 20th Special Session. In his opening speech Mr. Annan said:  "It is time for all nations to say 'yes' to the challenge of working towards a drug-free world." (Look here) And in his closing speech Arlacchi said: "Let us all go forward with the resolve that the commitment we have made to work for a drug-free world will be met with actions and the resources needed to ensure real and measurable results. Together we can meet this challenge. Now, let's get to work." (Look here) Arlacchi published an article a special issue of the UN Chronicle devoted to the 1998 UNGASS under the title: Towards a Drug-Free World by 2008—We can Do It ... .

I also remember being present at a preview of a media campaign the UN had prepared to be launched prior to the UNGASS. It was proudly presented at the preparatory meeting in March 1998 in Vienna. At the time TNI reported on the video in its report Caught in the Crossfire: "A cleaner enters a empty hall at the United Nations building in New York to prepare the room for an important meeting. A voice-over explains: 'Here in this room, on the 8th, 9th and 10th of June, world leaders will join forces to confront the drugs problem'. As the cleaner sprays cleaning liquid onto a globe, the scene cuts to a roaring helicopter spraying herbicides. There follow images of burning drugs crops, heavily armed soldiers and a farmer processing coffee. At the end, the voice concludes: 'A drug free world - We can do it!' "

It is unclear what happened with the media campaign. It apparently never was broadcasted anywhere. It disappeared, just as the controversial US$ 4 billion Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination by 2008 (SCOPE) that had been proposed by Arlacchi and the UNDCP. What happened with the campaign and SCOPE has always remained a mystery. Now that Mr. Arlacchi has taken up his career as an independent and truth seeking academic again, he might feel compelled to explain what has happened behind the closed doors of the major donors meetings or in his office.

Apparently, now, 10 years later, the UNODC seems to be embarrassed by the positions it took at the time. You can hardly find any reference to the 1998 UNGASS on the UNODC website – maybe that is why Costa does not know what he is talking about. (Although there is a reference here, including the speeches of Annan and Arlacchi)

To his credit, Costa's opening speech at the 2008 Commission on Narcotic Drugs devoted to the review of the 1998 UNGASS was much more realistic than Arlacchi’s rant at the time. He stressed that too many people are in prison, and too few in health services; that there are too few resources for prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation; and that there is too much eradication of drug crops, and not enough eradication of poverty. He also stressed the importance of harm reduction and human rights in international drug control as a priority to make drug control more 'fit for purpose': "As we emphasize the health aspects of drug control, it stands to reason that implementation of the drug conventions must proceed with due regard to human rights. Thus far, there has been little attention paid to this aspect of our work. This definitely needs to be amended. Although drugs kill, I don't believe we need to kill because of drugs."

Although a reasonable evidence-based, humane and effective global system for modern drug control is still a long way to go, some progress has been made over the past decade.

See also: The current state of drug policy debate: Trends in the last decade in the European Union and United Nations, by Martin Jelsma (TNI), Article submitted as support material for the First Meeting of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, Rio de Janeiro, April 30, 2008.