UNGASS: The World is Failing to Learn the Right Lessons from its 'War' on Drugs

The United Nations persists with a conservative policy on drugs, even as the chorus for reform gets louder.

A representational image of a UN General Assembly. Credit: Yuryi Abramochkin/CC-BY-SA 3.0

A representational image of a UN General Assembly. Credit: Yuryi Abramochkin/CC-BY-SA 3.0

A special session of the United Nations General Assembly is seldom a routine affair. The third special session of the UNGA, held in New York on April 19-21, 2016, was anticipated to be a still more significant gathering. Yet, there has been precious little mention of this important event in our part of the world, even though it has the potential to have a deep impact on us.


The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971 and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988 form the framework within which almost all nations formulate and administer laws relating to drugs, psychotropic substances and precursor chemicals. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in 1946, with headquarters at Vienna, to assist the ECOSOC in supervising the application of the international drug control treaties.

The UN General Assembly remains the principal body that decides policy on various matters. It is the only platform in which all the member states have equal representation and special sessions of the general assembly (UNGASS) are convened on specific issues at the request of member states. Each of the special sessions relating to drugs has been of more than ordinary interest because of the manner in which they have affected the global approach to drug issues.

By a resolution passed in December 1985, the General Assembly decided to convene an international conference on drug abuse and illicit trafficking. The conference, held in Vienna in June 1987, adopted a ‘Declaration and a Comprehensive Multidisciplinary Outline of Future Activities in Drug Abuse Control‘. Subsequently, in 1989, the UNGA decided to convene a special session to “consider, as a matter of urgency, the question of international co-operation against illicit production, supply, demand, trafficking and distribution of narcotic drugs.”

This first UNGASS on drugs, held in 1990, laid the formal foundation for cooperation among member states for taking measures against drugs and kicked off the ‘United Nations Decade against Drug Abuse’ (1991-2000).

The second UNGASS on drugs was held in 1998, at which member states agreed on a ‘Political Declaration on Global Drug Control’.  The main theme of this special session was to actively promote a society free of drugs. Slogans such as “War on Drugs” and “A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It” were coined.

In the following years, however, it became clear that the world could not “do it”. The effort to eliminate all drug production and impose a zero-tolerance approach to drug use simply did not succeed. Many felt that these efforts had done more harm than good the world over. Recent years saw a steadily increasing chorus for drug policy reform, with demands that higher priority be given to human rights, health and safety issues.

The high level segment of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs held in March 2009 reviewed the progress made and agreed on a new ‘Political Declaration and Plan of Action‘ on international cooperation towards an integrated and balanced strategy to counter the world drug problem. It also set the target date for the next UNGASS on drugs as 2019.

Even though the third UNGASS was scheduled to be held in 2019, the date was brought forward to 2016 on the initiative of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico – three countries that have borne the brunt of drug trafficking to the US.

The CND was entrusted with the responsibility of preparing for the special session. The preparatory process included a number of special events which were organised in Vienna, as also in New York, through the months preceding the special session. Many inter-sessional meetings and interactive sessions were held, mainly in Vienna.

A disappointing ‘outcome document’

An “outcome document” was negotiated at the 59th session of the CND at Vienna in March, 2016. Amidst divergent opinions, the document attempted to arrive at balanced views. Predictably, it was seen as status quo-ist by some whereas others felt it did not go far enough.

In its report to the General Assembly on the preparatory work done by it, the CND recorded that it had been requested “to produce a short, substantive, concise and action-oriented document”. This document was to comprise a set of operational recommendations, based upon a review of the implementation of the political declaration and plan of action, including an assessment of the achievements as well as ways to address long-standing and emerging challenges in countering the world drug problem.

The CND elaborated upon the consultation process which culminated in the ‘outcome document’. It concluded by reporting that following a series of intensive informal consultations and open-ended negotiations, the commission, at its fifty-ninth session, on 22 March, 2016 adopted resolution 59/1 containing the outcome document entitled “Our joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem” for transmission to the General Assembly and recommended its adoption at the plenary of the April UNGASS. The document ran to 24 pages (with alternate formulations) and mentioned all aspects of drugs and related issues.

A substantial part of the outcome document was platitudinous. It underscored the fact that the three main conventions and other international instruments constitute the cornerstone of the international drug control system. It reaffirmed the international community’s commitment to implementing effectively the provisions set out in the 2009 political declaration and plan of action. It contained the familiar call to member states to promote and strengthen regional and international cooperation, as also with the WHO and other entities, to meet the challenge of drug supply and drug demand reduction. It reiterated the commitment to enhance measures “to prevent and significantly and measurably reduce or eliminate the illicit cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis plant used for the production of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.”

The reiteration of the commitment to prevent illicit cultivation slammed shut the door on the glimmer of hope that the more progressive elements had harboured in respect of cannabis. Another declaration in the document that was minutely examined related to the issue of punishment for drug offences. While the word “decriminalisation” was not used, alternatives to conviction or punishment were alluded to. The document advocated promoting “proportionate national sentencing policies, practices and guidelines for drug-related offences whereby the severity of penalties is proportionate to the gravity of offences and whereby both mitigating and aggravating factors are taken into account.”

An issue that dominated the period before and during the UNGASS was the manner of drafting of the outcome document, as also its content. A large number of stakeholders were critical of the process and expressed disappointment over the conservative approach.

It was alleged that the actual negotiations on the outcome document were conducted behind closed doors through a non-inclusive and, at times, seemingly deliberately confusing process. It was also said that towards the end of the CND, discussions were only being held bilaterally between selected countries; with other delegations being unaware of what was happening or what was being agreed to.

On the eve of the UNGASS, the Transnational Institute (an Amsterdam-based “network of scholar-activists”) put out a statement on behalf of 195 civil society organisations spread across the globe. The statement felt that many countries, especially in the Caribbean and Africa which do not maintain a permanent mission in Vienna, could not participate in the negotiations on the outcome document. Moreover, the process was dominated by the status quo forces of the “Vienna-based UN drug control apparatus”. Importantly, it held that a global consensus on drugs was an unviable concept.

It also felt that the document was “entirely inconsistent with the priorities identified in the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals, such as tackling poverty, improving gender equality, or reducing violence and environmental degradation.”

The statement was critical of the outcome document because, despite its considerable length, it contained no ‘operational outcomes’ and simply endorsed the current approach to managing the drug problem. It alleged that many voices in favour of change had been ignored and called upon member states, UN agencies and officials, as also members of civil society, to challenge the draft outcome document at the UNGASS.

Other critical comments about the outcome document included the allegation that it failed to carry out an honest assessment of the efficacy of global drug policies over the past 50 years. It was felt by the progressive states that the outcome document was not a realistic or forward-looking reflection of the current drug policy environment, and failed to reflect many of the submissions made by UN entities, member states and others. Instead, it blindly applauded the fact that “tangible progress has been achieved” with little indication of what progress was being referred to. The document was also faulted for reaffirming the “archaic and unachievable goal of a society free of drug abuse”. Many states felt that the document also fell short of expectations because it remained silent on the issue of cannabis and did not take note of the shifts in cannabis policy that have been made in Uruguay and some US states.

The outcome document was harshly judged chiefly because of the sentiment for change gaining ground in recent years, more so after 2009.  A number of governments, civil society organisations, intellectuals and influential individuals had voiced the need to reassess the current approach to drugs and to shift the focus from drugs to people. There was widespread conviction that not only is humanity not winning the so-called war on drugs but that the ‘war’ is causing harm to society. The ‘war’ has led to public health crises, large scale imprisonment, corruption, and violence. Prominent among such organisations is the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a panel of eminent personalities including several former heads of governments, which has been actively arguing that the ‘war’ on drugs has not succeeded. It has been urging that it is essential, instead, to focus on health and community issues, decriminalise the use of drugs and find alternatives to detention of petty consumers and traffickers.

The UNGASS, being held after a gap of almost 17 years, was perceived in many quarters as a great opportunity to correct all that was believed to be wrong in relation to drugs and society. The outcome document was, therefore, in many ways considered a dampener.

Discussions at the UNGASS

The outcome document was adopted by the plenary of the special session. The discussions on the first day included the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences. Whereas the outcome document contained no criticism of the death penalty, many parties were not satisfied with the compromise statement that “Countries should ensure that punishments are proportionate with the crimes.” Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto declared that “Disproportional penalties … create vicious cycles of marginalisation and further crime.” He called for the decriminalisation of marijuana for medical and scientific purposes and said the international community’s responses to drug issues is “frankly, insufficient.”

The UNGASS  also included five round tables:

  1. Demand reduction and related measures, including prevention and treatment;
  2. Supply reduction and related measures; responses to drug-related crime; and countering money-laundering and promoting judicial cooperation;
  3. Cross-cutting issues: drugs and human rights, youth, women, children and communities;
  4. Cross-cutting issues: new challenges, threats and realities in preventing and addressing the world drug problem and
  5. Alternative development; regional, interregional and international cooperation.

A very large number of side events were also held.

Many organisations opposed to the death penalty had seen the UNGASS as the most significant platform to demand doing away with the extreme punishment for drug offences.  In a joint statement issued before the special session, Amnesty International and other bodies declared that they were against the death penalty in all cases without exception and called upon member states to immediately halt executions and abolish the death penalty. They also called for implementation of drug policies that respect and protect human dignity, the rule of law and human rights.

On the issue of the death penalty, there was a clear schism between the EU and its allies (alongside countries such as Turkey, Switzerland, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and Norway) and those unwilling to adopt a flexible approach. It has been argued that the death penalty is not within the mandate of the CND, but a criminal justice matter for sovereign states. Those holding this view include Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia Egypt and Malaysia.

Reflecting the conservative approach, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation addressed the secretary general on the eve of the special session, indicating the support of the member states of the SCO to the “current international drug control system”. There was disappointment because it was felt that several countries with considerable diplomatic clout, including China and Russia, adhere to the belief that criminalisation should remain the cornerstone of the fight against drugs.

The discussions before and during the UNGASS clearly indicated the divisions within the international community on drug issues. Even as the special session failed to usher any revolutionary changes, there was a tacit acknowledgement of the sentiment that an all inclusive debate is not possible. In an unstated manner, this UNGASS was also confronted with doubts about the consensus approach and even the universal applicability of the three UN drug conventions.

What was achieved, and the impact on India

The proceedings of the UNGASS were aptly summed up in the somewhat theatrical national statement made by Peter Dunne, New Zealand associate minister of health. He rhetorically posed the question, “The world will ask what was achieved here in New York at this UNGASS meeting?”

According to him, the answer would lie in the changes that might be effected by individual states in the coming years and progress would indeed have been made if the pace of change picks up and bold, innovative, compassionate and proportionate policies thrive. He warned that “if the nations continue to muddle along, choosing the easy options and throwing the problems to their police and judiciaries, then the answer will be very little.”

The UNGASS 2016 deliberations are likely to pose questions which India shall need to address. An important issue would be the legislative architecture. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, the principal Indian legislation, contains both red rags – death sentence for repeat offenders and a mandatory minimum sentence for drug offences. The stance that India adopts towards various substances of abuse, and cannabis in particular, shall bear watching. The winds of change blowing across the global drug landscape are also likely to strain India’s capacity and resources. The paradigm shift from a penal regime to one requiring investing in health care, addiction treatment and alternatives to incarceration would demand humungous resources. The easy option of ‘muddling along’ might not be available for ever.

Postscript: As a footnote to the UNGASS, it is worth observing that the special session was held on April 19, 20 and 21. The delegates attending the session must have been acutely aware that April 20 is traditionally observed as Cannabis Day! Considering that the outcome fell far short of expectations, it must have been someone with a wry sense of humour or a great optimist who must have originally proposed the date 4/20 for holding the special session

K.C. Verma retired as head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, and is a former Director General of the Narcotics Control Bureau