Edging forward

How the UN’s language on drugs has advanced since 1990
Jamie Bridge (IDPC), Christopher Hallam (IDPC), Marie Nougier (IDPC), Miguel Herrero Cangas (IDPC) Martin Jelsma (TNI), Tom Blickman (TNI) & David Bewley-Taylor (GDPO)
IDPC Briefing Paper
September 2017

edging forwardDiplomatic processes at the United Nations are notoriously slow and difficult, perhaps increasingly so in a modern world of multi-polar geopolitics and tensions. This is certainly no different for the highly charged and provocative issue of international drug control. After the latest high-level UN meeting on drug control – the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the ‘world drug problem’ in New York in April 2016 – many stakeholders came away with mixed feelings at best. Despite acknowledgements of the progress made in certain areas of the debate, and the rich content of some of the country and civil society statements, the UNGASS failed to deliver the ‘wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options’ that had been called for by the UN Secretary-General at the time, Ban Ki-Moon.

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In order to help digest and contextualise the UNGASS Outcome Document, it is useful to take a broader look at how the agreed UN language on drug control has evolved and developed over the last quarter of a century. To this end, this IDPC briefing paper explores a selection of key themes by analysing the consensus-based language agreed by UN member states. The briefing studies the evolution in agreed language on: the success/failure of drug control, harm reduction, human rights, development, civil society engagement, criminal justice responses and fexibilities in the conventions, access to controlled medicines and UN system-wide coherence.


‘The consensus-driven functioning of the UN drug control machinery has led to strange results... In private, ‘‘most authorities agree that it is unrealistic to expect to eradicate drugs’’ and that the present regime is ineffective. But as soon as they sit down in the conference halls in Vienna and New York, they shift into consensus mode and the majority of officials are swept along in a ritual of rhetoric while the minority prefers to keep as low a profile as possible’. - (Martin Jelsma)

In many respects, the increasingly long and tense diplomatic negotiations underpinning each of the high-level UN documents compared in this paper can be criticised for their disconnect from the reality on the ground that they purport to represent – as well as the existing divide between progressive statements made by member states and consensus-based UN documents. But the language agreed by the UN drug control structures can be an effective force in driving policy change at the national and regional levels. Even though the pace may be glacial, shifts over time in the agreed language are important, and are integral to the normative role played by UN agencies such as UNODC.

This paper has identified some areas for which the 2016 UNGASS and its Outcome Document represent clear progress in terms of the UN discourse, the consensus-based language and the general debates: such as human rights, development approaches, civil society engagement, flexibilities in the international drug conventions, access to controlled medicines, and cross-UN engagement. That is not to say that further progress is not still needed in all of these areas, but some of the trends identified in this report serve as an important proxy for overall shifts in drug control debates and approaches around the world. Key elements of this progress include the more systematic engagement of both civil society and UN agencies in the preparations and discussions, the relatively coordinated work of groups of like-minded countries, and the adoption of a more comprehensive document structure – utilising seven chapters (including public health, alternative development, access to medicines and human rights) rather than the previous three (demand reduction, supply reduction and international cooperation). If progress is to continue and hopefully accelerate for 2019 and beyond, these are all elements of the preparations that need to be protected and strengthened further.

Interestingly, at the same time, there are still a number of issues that remain insufficiently acknowledged by the UN drug control system, or for which the best agreed language comes from previous decades and not from 2016. Each one of the high-level UN documents analysed in this paper have struggled with the lack of tangible progress being made by current drug policies – yet this issue was perhaps most honestly dealt with in the 2009 Plan of Action. The refreshingly frank ‘Problem’ statements that opened every sub-section in that document should be repeated for 2019 to avoid continued accusations of denialism and delusion.

Then there is the long-term tension and controversy over harm reduction. The fact that member states have still been unable to agree on this term is unjustifiable and damaging to the credibility of the entire UN drug control system – not least because other parts of the UN, including all of the relevant UN agencies and even the UN General Assembly itself when discussing the HIV response, have overcome this – including at the High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS which took place only two months after the 2016 UNGASS on drugs. Although the latest UNGASS did present us with the strongest language to date on specific harm reduction interventions, arguably the most straight-forward language on the broader principle of harm reduction can still be found in the 1990 Political Declaration: ‘health education programmes and policies for the reduction of risk and harm of drug abuse’.

Finally, even where progress has been made, it is the role of civil society to continue pushing for more, and to ensure that shifting narratives are translated into changes on the ground and not confined to laudable but rhetorical exchanges in UN meeting rooms. ‘Reformers looking towards a new era of humane and evidence-informed drug policy must know how to look beyond rhetorical commitments to public health to implementation of effective programs’.

This paper demonstrates the progress that has been made in several areas of UN drug control discussions. This remains important in the current drug policy debates, as was seen at the 2017 CND where there was a clear tension between member states who wanted to revert to language and tone from the 2009 Political Declaration (which targets remain active and due for realisation in 2019), and those who wanted to emphasise the importance of the more progressive and more recent 2016 Outcome Document. There remains much work to be done to deliver an international drug policy that is truly and meaningfully based on public health, development and human rights. However, there is much progress contained within the 2016 Outcome Document that needs to be consolidated, repeated and further developed in 2019 and beyond.

The briefing was presented at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) intersessional on September 28, 2017.

Launch EdgingForward

From left to right: Jamie Bridge (IDPC), Luciana Pol (CELS), and Martin Jelsma (TNI)