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UNGASS – A Very Modest Drug Policy Review
UNGASS – A Very Modest Drug Policy Review
Statement : UNGASS Must Not Become a Missed Opportunity – Lessons from Latin America
Statement : UNGASS Must Not Become a Missed Opportunity – Lessons from Latin America
A woman places a Mexican flag next to shoes belonging to a few of the scores of thousands of victims of the country’s drug wars since 2006. Monterrey, 15 January 2012. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

UNGASS – A Very Modest Drug Policy Review

Today’s tough international regime to deal with narcotic and other dangerous drugs, Colombia’s Justice Minister Yesid Reyes said in the lead up to the latest UN policy review, is like the famous definition of insanity usually attributed to Albert Einstein: doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results.

Soon afterwards, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia spoke of the international community’s inability to acknowledge the drug issue as primarily a human rights and health, not security problem. Instead, he suggested, punitive policies in the name of better security have not only failed to eliminate illicit drug flows or significantly reduce demand, but have also contributed to what appears to be ever more violence and human suffering.

Both the minister and president of the country plagued by one of the world’s biggest cocaine-production problems expressed hope the special high-level session of the UN General Assembly (UNGASS) in New York on 19-21 April would identify reforms. Many others, including International Crisis Group, also saw a rare opportunity for change. Unfortunately, that hope was misplaced: the UNGASS largely missed its chance to usher in much-needed new global drug policies.

UNGASS sparked considerable optimism in 2012, when the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala proposed that it be held this year. They asserted that the unintended consequences of the war on drugs included too many victims and too much violence and corruption.

Latin America has suffered the most from dysfunctional drug policies dictated by the international community.

They spoke from their domestic experience. Latin America has suffered the most from dysfunctional drug policies dictated by the international community. In Mexico, scores of thousands have died in drugs-related violence since 2006; 6.5 million have been displaced in Colombia’s decades-old internal conflict fuelled in part by the drug business; and Guatemala, which transships over 80 per cent of the cocaine ultimately consumed in the U.S. on to Mexico, ranks among the world’s most violent countries. In several parts of Latin America, drug cartels and criminal groups benefit from and contribute to widespread corruption and coercion of public officials.

The presidents envisaged a gathering that would mark the historical moment when the international approach to dangerous drugs would acquire a more humanitarian cast, allowing countries hitherto bound by legal commitments undertaken in 1961 greater flexibility in dealing with their national drug issues. It was not to be.

The UNGASS final document did record some accomplishments. States agreed that the drug issue is above all a health issue and thus users should be treated with respect and given opportunities for social reintegration. They recognised that cooperation among specialised UN bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN Women, is essential in order to include drug policy in human rights and development agendas. And they agreed that the proportionality principle should be applied in criminal offences for first-time drug users and those involved at the lowest links of trafficking chains.

Reformers at the UNGASS session were disappointed.

There were however disappointments for reformers. One great frustration was hardly a surprise: despite mounting pressure from many member states, global leaders, civil society and UN agencies, a number of countries, led by Indonesia and supported among others by China, Singapore, Egypt, Pakistan and Iran, blocked agreement on a proposal to call for abolishment of the death penalty for drug offences. They then ruled out compromise wording that would urge a moratorium on such executions until a consensus could be achieved.

A second disappointment revolved around the decision to drop from the final document the widely-used term “harm reduction”, referring to measures that are alternatives to automatic criminalisation and could avoid needless spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and tuberculosis. Governments like Uruguay, Switzerland and the Czech Republic said this amounted to a failure to recognise the value and effectiveness of the public health-oriented policies they are pursuing.

The final document’s undifferentiated placement of human rights in the same section with women, youth and communities was a third disappointment to the many states that argued for acknowledgement that human rights are a crosscutting issue. These states believe UNGASS should have emphasised the need for greater efforts to collect and analyse evidence of how drug policies differently affect women, children, youth and disadvantaged communities.

The most worrying failure of UNGASS was that it produced no real commitment for member states to conduct a critical review of their policies.

The most worrying failure of UNGASS, however, was that it produced no real commitment for member states to conduct a critical review of their policies. None of the proposals for creation of a panel of experts or an experts working group that were on the table were adopted. Missing this opportunity to bring more evidence and expertise into the contentious policy debate means that reformers may face even tougher going in 2019, when the UN is scheduled to set its drug policy agenda for the next decade.

The immediate challenge for like-minded countries, civil society and UN agencies is thus to devise alternative proposals for continuing in a more systematic manner over the next three years the immense research and evidence-collection that is under way on existing drug policies, even without the blessing and momentum that should have come from UNGASS.

If 2019 is to produce action that better reflects that achievement, however, the reformers in civil society, UN agencies and the countries that pushed for a more innovative UNGASS will need to encourage the debate’s continuation in countries that are sticking to the old rules, including the U.S.

UNGASS at least conducted an open global debate about what has gone wrong with the international control regime, breaking some long-held articles of faith. It showed that there are ways to address the threat of criminal drug cartels and illicit drug trafficking at the same time as protecting human rights, reducing violence and using proven public health methods to deal with illicit drug use.

So despite the disappointments, the Colombian minister may have material to disprove Einstein’s supposed dictum: repeated criticism of the old drugs policy may yet bring a new result. The three UNGASS days in New York, an optimist can say, did show that meaningful policy change may be closer than ever.

Statement : UNGASS Must Not Become a Missed Opportunity – Lessons from Latin America

Since 1961, the international community has invested huge resources to enforce the UN mandate to create a “drug free” world. Yet, after decades of interdiction and eradication, organised crime around the globe has merely shifted routes and markets. Massive corruption, violence and human rights abuses are consequences of a too often militarised response. World leaders who meet 19-21 April at the UN Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) must do much more than review the struggle. They must begin to fix its flaws, stem the bloodshed and bolster societies besieged by transnational crime. Crisis Group recommends that UNGASS draw lessons from a history of failed strategies and poor results and from our field experience to look closely at Latin America, where cartels outgun national police, coerce and corrupt officials and produce countless victims in a battle to control drug production, transport corridors and distribution networks.

The UN Drug Conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988 set the legal framework under which illicit substances are defined as a danger to national and international security. Facing rising violence and recognising the failure of the anti-drug regime to achieve its goal, the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala called in 2012 for UNGASS to be advanced three years, to 2016. They envisaged an opportunity to design drug policies focused above all on promoting public health and human rights, without neglecting citizen security.

Much evidence about what has gone wrong with the global counter-narcotic regime and many proposals have been discussed during UNGASS preparations. While there has been an inclusive debate involving civil society, the political climate does not yet appear conducive to major global changes. Only 53 of 193 member states participated in the final preparatory session last month in Vienna, and they endorsed few new ideas for possible inclusion in the UNGASS outcomes document. From a health, human rights and security perspective, the language for review is weak.

Crisis Group has reported on violence related to drug trafficking and criminal networks for more than a decade. Our extensive 2008 double report on the worrying impact of counter-narcotic policies on violence in the Andean region[fn]See Latin America Report N°25 Latin American Drugs I: Losing the Fight and Latin America Report N°26 Latin American Drugs II: Improving Policy and Reducing Harm, both published on 14 March 2008. Hide Footnote concluded that “the international community needs urgently to acknowledge mistakes and adopt fundamental policy improvements or transnational criminals will be the winners”. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy said much the same. We expanded that message in reports on Guatemala (2011) and Mexico (2013), calling for leaders “to open a serious debate and to re-evaluate policies that have failed to alleviate the suffering caused by drug addiction or to reduce the corruption and violence associated with drug production and trafficking”. We repeat this call today and urge collective agreement at UNGASS on a meaningful, systematic mechanism to reform the contemporary anti-drug regime in the three years until 2019, when the UN is to set the next ten-year drug policy agenda.

What Can UNGASS Learn from Latin America?

Latin America is the front line of the war on drugs. Examination of experiences in Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala – the same countries that urged an early UNGASS – can help with the critical assessment required for national and international drug policies to be transformed so that they treat chronic users through the public health rather than criminal justice system, prioritise harm reduction rather than incarceration and improve security rather than multiply the threats to it in the region. These three countries, where Crisis Group works extensively, are representative of how drug-producing and transit regions are severely affected by policies that require a global approach, including reflection about the impact of U.S. policies.

In Colombia, the drug economy has been an integral element of the long civil conflict, at least from the mid-1980s. The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos knows the imminent prospect of ending the conflict with the FARC and ELN insurgencies is the best moment for both greatly reducing illicit trafficking and testing drug policy reforms. On 9 May 2015, it suspended aerial spraying of coca crops with glyphosate. On 22 September, it adopted the Integral Strategy for Substitution of Illicit Crops, the objective of which is to invest in the coca-producing regions. Following the principle of reducing harm, it also proclaims that drug users should no longer be imprisoned. On 21 December, a decree on regulation of the cannabis market for medical and scientific purposes was adopted. A lesson already reflected in the pending peace agreement with the FARC is that for these new policies to succeed and peace to be sustainable, voluntary coca plant eradication and alternative development must be a priority; peasants and youths, otherwise likely to be pulled into the drug trade, must be given long-term economic options.

In Mexico, overreliance on the military violates human rights and erodes law enforcement in some regions. As Colombia confronted its drug cartels, traffickers in Mexico took on an increasingly powerful role. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón initiated a campaign that prioritised decapitation of the cartels, accelerating their fragmentation into smaller, often deadlier groups. Little has changed under President Enrique Peña Nieto, despite promises to prioritise social programs aimed at violence prevention. Deaths due to drug-related violence since 2006 exceed 90,000. Impunity remains the norm in regions where powerful gangsters have overwhelmed, intimidated or corrupted local, state and even federal officials. The 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero state was especially horrific but not unprecedented. Many gangs have diversified from drugs into predatory crimes, such as kidnapping and extortion, often burying victims in unmarked, mass graves. Security and justice institutions are frequently unable or unwilling to protect citizens and bring dangerous criminals (including corrupt officials) to justice.

Geography puts Guatemala – midway between Colombia and the U.S. – at one of the world’s busiest illegal drug intersections. Cocaine (and ingredients for synthetic drugs) arrives by air, land and sea and moves on to Mexico, then the U.S. Its highland climate is ideal for poppy cultivation. Lenient gun laws and a history of arms smuggling make weapons plentiful. An impoverished, underemployed population is a source of recruits. In some regions, traffickers are prominent entrepreneurs in both licit and illicit businesses. There are signs of some progress. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has produced investigations that, with support of brave prosecutors, led to indictment and imprisonment of corrupt officials and their associates. Most recently, nineteen senior officials, including ex-President Otto Pérez Molina, were indicted and arrested in a massive corruption case. President Jimmy Morales now faces the challenge of continuing the fight against endemic corruption and crime and coercion that allowed creation of parallel illicit structures. But Guatemala has limited resources and relies heavily on international cooperation, a factor that is key both for any sustainable success against crime and impunity, and also for opening a national debate on its policy options.

The U.S. is deeply engaged in developing and implementing drug policies in Latin America. While its Government Accountability Office concluded Washington’s Plan Colombia improved security there against insurgencies, counter-narcotic strategies have been criticised as ineffective in eliminating coca cultivation or production and marketing of illicit drugs. A recent reallocation of significant resources from interdiction and military aid to human rights and development can help rebuild the social fabric and strengthen rule of law and should be expanded. Distortions in U.S. drug policy in the region will not be overcome, however, without a domestic debate on the war on drugs it announced in 1971 and that many today consider unwinnable. Crisis Group encourages Congress to form a blue-ribbon, independent commission to review internal and external strategies from human rights, health and security perspectives and present conclusions to the new administration in January. Similar mechanisms might be created in other countries.

Seizing the UNGASS Opportunity

UNGASS is not the last chance for member states to fundamentally change their counter-narcotic strategies, but it is the opportunity to agree on a systematic review that can lay the groundwork for decisions in 2019. Part of the approach should be to draw from other UN commitments, especially the Sustainable Development Goals, which envisage incentives for treating drug users and drug traffickers in fundamentally different ways. Including other UN agencies and multilateral and regional mechanisms in the review is equally essential.

Latin American experience suggests drug policy must take into account the interests of those directly affected by crime and violence, including the weakest links of the criminal chain. Crisis Group recommends that UNGASS draw appropriate lessons from the above examples and create mechanisms that can help states collect evidence on national drug policies that give adequate weight to health, safety, human rights and development implications. The Secretary-General should lead in encouraging debate and endorse formation of an independent expert group, as proposed by Colombia, Uruguay and several civil society organisations, to gather such evidence and propose alternatives to current drug policies in the lead-up to 2019.

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