World anti-drugs day: mixed feelings

Thursday, June 26, 2008
Thousands of bottles of alcohol are destroyed in Java to observe the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in 2007.

Today, June 26, is the official UN International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. At the TNI Drugs & Democracy programme we have always found it a difficult day to deal with, full of mixed emotions. Too often the day has been desecrated by countries eager to highlight their toughest anti-drug actions. That includes each year a high number of executions in China especially saved up for June 26th. Killing drug law offenders to celebrate a UN day, in spite of the General Assembly adopting last year a resolution opposing the death penalty.

Today started well, with a message by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, under the heading “No one should be stigmatized or discriminated against because of their dependence on drugs”. In the message the SG specifies: “As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I remind all Member States of their responsibility to fully respect the rights of prisoners who are drug dependent or are in custody for drug-related crimes, especially their rights to life and a fair trial.”

That should be a normal thing to say for an SG, since human rights are the very cornerstone of the UN system. But in fact it is a remarkable and unusually clear appeal to respect human rights in the implementation of the UN drug control treaties. The message was sent around the world in advance, but the news is not yet out whether the Chinese listened to it, usually they don’t. The Chinese delegation in March this year at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna did everything they could to prevent the adoption of a Uruguayan resolution that asked Member States to do exactly the same simple thing: respect human rights in drug control. The Chinese objection almost broke the carefully maintained ‘Vienna consensus’ when Uruguay threatened to take it to a vote.

Ban Ki Moon, with his message, also indicates he fully supports the line recently taken by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) led by his Under-Secretary General Antonio Maria Costa. In a number of speeches and discussion papers recent months, Costa has presented a series of interesting proposals for making drug control ‘Fit for purpose'. Costa speaks of the need to ‘humanize’ our drug control system, because in his opinion there are too many people in prison, huge amounts of resources are being spent on law enforcement, and too little on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and harm reduction, and too much emphasis is being given to the eradication of illicit crops, with few resources being spent on development assistance to farmers. He also highlights the need to mitigate the unintended negative consequences of current drug control efforts, openly defends the principle of harm reduction and emphasizes that the “implementation of the drug Conventions must proceed with due regard to health and human rights ".

Again today, the head of UNODC called for full respect of human rights in the exercise of drug control. He spoke out of in favour of human rights of drug addicts and against the death penalty for drug-related crimes. "Although drugs kill, we should not kill because of drugs", said Mr. Costa when he presented the World Drug Report 2008.

The WDR has been another reason for our mixed feelings on world anti-drugs day for many years now. We have released critical press releases and policy briefings in response to the WDR several times, and are doing it again today. The report, the most important UN annual publication on drugs issues, includes references to these recent positive changes in UNODC discourse with regard to human rights and harm reduction. However, it also includes, as usual, many unsubstantiated claims of success and effectiveness of the UN drug control system. This year, a major section is devoted to ‘100 years of international drug control’. "Drug statistics show that the drug problem was dramatically reduced over the past century, and has stabilized over the past 10 years", according to Mr. Costa. According to the WDR, high opium consumption figures early last century in China were effectively brought down thanks to the international drug control treaty negotiations that started in 1909 in Shanghai.

Compared with our reading of the drug control history of the past century, the WDR exaggerates problematic opium use, underestimates its medicinal purpose and attributes market changes far too easily to international drug control efforts. Attempts in the report to claim similar successes for 100-year shifts in the coca/cocaine market are even more out of touch with reality. We think it is crucial for the UNODC to move in the direction of a centre of excellence to advise policy makers, and are therefore disappointed once again about the accuracy of the picture they paint. While we applaud UNODC’s increasing sensitivity with regard to human rights and harm reduction, we at the same time question profoundly many of the other conclusions contained in this year’s WDR.

Our concern is also that the WDR focus attempts to draw attention away from the 10-year review of the 1998 drugs UNGASS that is fully in motion as we speak. This week the first working group convened in Vienna to discuss lessons learned on supply reduction and next week there is one on Alternative Development. Crucial conclusions have to be drawn between now and September when the CND starts to prepare the high level meeting scheduled for next March to adopt policy directions for the future. Not much progress can be claimed over this last decade and that has to be put honestly on the table instead of hiding that failure behind a bad history lesson on the past century.

Please read our Drug Policy Briefing “Rewriting history - A response to the 2008 World Drug Report