Preparing for the 2016 UNGASS on drugs

An opportunity we can’t afford to miss
Nazlee Maghsoudi (IDPC)
Thursday, July 31, 2014

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016 is intended to provide states with the opportunity to openly debate the future of international drug policies. An event at UN headquarters in New York discussed precisely what preparations are necessary to make sure the UNGASS accomplishes this objective.

Co-sponsored by the Mexico, Benin and Switzerland Permanent Missions to the UN, as well as IDPC and the New York NGO Committee on Drugs, “The 2016 UNGASS on Drugs: Ensuring a Successful Outcome” was a timely discussion just a day before the ECOSOC adopted the draft resolution pertaining to UNGASS preparations for recommendation to the General Assembly.

The limited impact of repressive drug polices in reducing drug markets, as well as the increased harms caused by these policies, has now been widely recognized. To Ambassador Jean-Francis Régis Zinsou of Benin, “the importance of this topic no longer needs to be explained.” States have begun to create new national policies that they believe will more effectively address the harms caused by drugs. Ambassador Zinsou highlighted the most pertinent example when he described the recent marijuana reforms in several countries as “an admission of the failure of repressive policies.”

Although the diverging perspectives between states increase the difficulty of constructive international dialogue, it is this fragmented consensus that makes the UNGASS so important. This was emphasized by the event moderator Mike Trace, Chair of IDPC, who also noted that the flexibility of the UN drug conventions is being stretched as states pursue their own policies. According to Mr. Trace, there is no longer any security in maintaining the current approach to international drug policy and the UNGASS is the ideal opportunity to discuss a new strategy.

Ambassador Yanerit Morgan of Mexico called for the UNGASS to be an “open, inclusive, substantive and comprehensive debate” involving all stakeholders. However, ensuring that such a debate takes place involves careful preparation. As Ambassador Zinsou reminded the audience, in the past, the drug policy debate has been silenced and is still at risk of being pushed to the margins of the international community. To the sponsors of the event, it is the international community’s responsibility to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by the UNGASS.

Dr. Renata Segura, Associate Director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum of the Social Science Research Council, echoed the words of the Ambassadors when she reiterated that while an open debate as a goal sounds modest, it should not be minimized. Without adequate preparation, the international community risks a repeat of the 1998 UNGASS on Drugs, during which the voices of reformers and pragmatists were silenced by those in favor of the status quo.

Dr. Segura gave three key practical recommendations to ensure a successful outcome at the UNGASS. First, missions must clearly define their goals and objectives for the 2016 UNGASS on drugs by understanding which drug policies are most suitable for their nation. To prepare properly, member states must develop their positions by carefully considering the ample evidence and research on drug policies and apply this to the context of their country and citizens. Missions require a thorough understanding of their state’s position to contribute appropriately to an open debate at the 2016 UNGASS on drugs.

Second, all UN agencies must play a strong role in developing the necessary research in preparation for the UNGASS, as it is clear that drug markets have an impact on security, development, human rights and the rights of women and children, among other areas. Dr. Segura stated that the United Nations Task Force on Transnational Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking – a UN agency task force established by Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon in 2011 which is mandated to help facilitate preparations for UNGASS – is the most important mechanism we have to ensure the participation of all relevant UN agencies. It is vital that member states use this body to its maximum potential by making clear and specific requests of the UN agencies task force well in advance of the 2016 UNGASS.

Third, civil society engagement, specifically via committees such as the NYNGOC, is of great importance. In this regard, there is a critical need to promptly formalize the role of civil society to allow full engagement in UNGASS preparations. Dr. Segura concluded by cautioning that inertia and the controversial nature of this topic risk preventing an open and meaningful dialogue at the UNGASS. Action in the form of the three recommendations above must be urgently accelerated.

Dr. Roberto Dondisch, Director General for Global Issues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico, emphasized that after we have decided on how to prepare for the UNGASS, such as determining what formal structure for engagement and communication must be implemented, we must also decide on what we need to prepare. This bears resemblance to Dr. Segura’s first recommendation: that member states develop their position on drug policy by analyzing the existing evidence and the unique case in their respective countries.

Dr. Dondisch stressed that nations must decide what they believe the problem is, namely, the use of drugs or the harms caused by drug use. States must then grasp the different environment that exists today, both internationally and in their nation, in contrast to the context in which the UN drug conventions were adopted. The objectives and strategies that are deemed most suitable will then become that nation’s reference point for discussions at the UNGASS. Mexico’s strategy of comprehensive participation is fundamentally focused on moving from a user-centered approach to a society-centered approach. Nations must prepare for the debate at the 2016 UNGASS by defining their objectives to reflect current circumstances and by identifying corresponding strategies that are ideal for their nation.

A representative from the Swiss Mission made a brief statement which reiterated Ambassador Morgan’s emphasis on the need for openness and transparency to promote a constructive discussion at the UNGASS. As Dr. Segura advised, Switzerland believes the inclusion of civil society and UN agencies other than UNODC is essential to the preparatory process. The Swiss representative also called for drug policies to be based on human rights, public health principles and scientific evidence. For Switzerland, the 2016 UNGASS should prepare the international community for the 2019 review of the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action.

Event attendees left with a thorough grasp of the actions that must be taken to set the groundwork for a productive UNGASS that adequately presents the varying perspectives on the best way to address the “world drug problem.” It is now up to member states, UN agencies and civil society to collaboratively prepare for the 2016 UNGASS. This is an opportunity the world cannot afford to miss.

Listen to the event via UN Radio.