Civil society left disappointed by UNGASS on drugs

26 April 2016

Negotiating the political minefield of global drug policy has left civil society and many progressive-thinking countries disappointed by the outcomes of last week’s United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem, and frustrated by the UNGASS process.

The United Nations Building NY

The 19-21 April meeting of world leaders, non-governmental organisations and members of civil society in New York was the first special session on drugs in nearly 20 years. It offered a momentous opportunity to debate global drug policy, discuss successes and failures, and endorse a new Outcome Document as the way forward.

In the three-year run-up, there were strong calls from many member states and civil society organisations to move away from criminalisation and punitive approaches in place since the 1998 UNGASS on drugs, which vowed to reduce the ever increasing supply and demand of drugs through punitive measures, including the criminalisation of drug users.  

However, the UNGASS process and last week’s meeting itself were seen by many to have side-lined calls to adopt a health and human rights-based approach to drug policy that is both fair and evidence-informed.

Harm reduction works

Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, roughly a third of all new HIV infections are from injecting drug use. Something that is entirely preventable through increased access to harm reduction measures such as opioid substitution treatment (OST), needle exchanges and psychosocial support for people who use drugs.

It is now increasingly recognised that where health and rights-based interventions are in place, evidence shows that new HIV infections will decline - harm reduction works.

According to Harm Reduction International, who called on member states to champion harm reduction, “chronic underfunding” and a lack of political will is resulting in missed targets for reducing new HIV infections and deaths among drug users. The 2015 target of halving HIV infections among people who inject drugs was missed by 80%.

Civil society backlash

The Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose membership includes entrepreneur Richard Branson and several former heads of government, slammed the UNGASS Outcome Document, stating that it was “profoundly disappointed” by the entire UNGASS process, and lack of recognition of the failures of the current drug policy regime in any of the outputs.

In a statement it said: “It does not call for an end to criminalisation and incarceration of drug users. It does not urge states to abolish capital punishment for drug-related offences… It does not advocate for harm reduction and treatment strategies that have demonstrated effectiveness. Finally it does not offer proposals to regulate drugs and put governments – rather than criminals – in control.”

Susie McLean of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance commented: “This is a dangerous and distorting fantasy that prioritises the eradication of drug use above preventing disease and protecting human rights.  It’s a delusion that has appeared in previous drugs commitments and has been spectacularly unsuccessful. UNODC’s own data demonstrates that illicit drug use continues to rise.”

Diederik Lohman, Associate Director of Health and Human Rights at Human Rights Watch, called the meeting a “missed opportunity”.

Lack of transparency

Even before the UNGASS, civil society had been frustrated by the preparations in the run-up. In March, over 200 civil society organisations signed a statement declaring that the preparatory process lacked transparency and full representation.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the process “to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options”. 

In its statement, civil society said that the drafting process was very much owned by the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna, and not by the General Assembly in New York.

Several member states from the Global South – notably Latin America and Africa, do not have permanent representation in Vienna, and were unable to engage with the entire process. Despite the General Assembly saying that provisions would be made to get these states to these meetings, the civil society statement claims that this did not happen.

Instead the Vienna-based organisations “sought to exclude innovative and forward-looking proposals from member states, other UN agencies, and civil society – perpetuating the same power struggles and paralysis that have hindered the Vienna debate on drug control for decades.”

Civil society also complained that most of the discussion happened behind closed doors, instead of in ‘inter-sessionals’, meaning that it was effectively excluded. This situation made it easier for certain countries championing regressive policies to block progressive language.

Richard Elliot, Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network told Open Democracy: “We are troubled but not surprised by reports that the Russian federation has been actively engaged in trying to block any sort of reasonable language about harm reduction, about human rights. Given the way Russia is playing politics with the drug issue domestically, for domestic political power purposes, it’s not surprising, but it is disappointing.”

The next steps

In principle, the final draft Outcome Document was to be brought to UNGASS to be debated and discussed. But in reality, the document was pushed through and signed almost as soon as the special session began. The next opportunity to discuss global drug policy will be in 2019, when the UN Plan of Action calling for a ‘drug free world’ will be reviewed.

Coletta Youngers from the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) said: “The debate goes back to the countries, and that’s where I think we’re going to see some really interesting reforms in addition to those already taking place, starting on the ground. And ultimately, change is going to come from the ground up, not from the UN down.”

In the HIV sector, all eyes are on the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS in June, a multi-stakeholder meeting on the importance of the Fast-Track approach to ending AIDS.


Photo credit:
Photo by United Nations/ CC-BY