UNGASS 2016: A Broken or B-r-o-a-d Consensus?

UN summit cannot hide a growing divergence in the global drug policy landscape
Drug Policy Briefing Nr 45
July 2016

A special session of the General Assembly took place in April revealing a growing divergence in the global drug policy landscape. Difficult negotiations resulted in a disappointing outcome document, perpetuating a siloed approach to drugs at the UN level. There is a clear need to realign international drug policies with the overarching 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, embedding the drugs issue comprehensively within the UN’s three pillars: development, human rights, and peace and security. The UNGASS process has helped to set the stage for more substantial changes in the near future, towards the next UN review in 2019.

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The 30th Special Session of the General Assembly (UNGASS) took place in New York from 19 to 21 April. It was the third special session in UN history devoted to the drugs issue. During the previous drugs UNGASS in 1998, Mr Udovenko, the Ukrainian President of the General Assembly at the time, addressed in his closing remarks a “growing convergence of views” and a “spirit of togetherness”. The tough negotiations over the UNGASS outcome document this year, on the other hand, were characterised by growing divergence and head-on collision on some issues.

A fragile consensus was reached on a final draft at the Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND or Commission) in March in Vienna. Fears were so prevalent that it could still break apart in the course of the three-day meeting that the adoption of the outcome document, scheduled to take place at the closing session, was moved forward on the agenda immediately after the opening ceremony on the first day. When a journalist asked Mr Fedotov, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), how the UN could pretend there is consensus on how to tackle what has become known simply as the ‘world drug problem’ when some countries are legalising cannabis while in others people are executed for trafficking it, he answered with a wry smile: “it’s a very b-r-o-a-d consensus”.

Key Points

  • Struggling to present an image of unity, the UNGASS on drugs in April 2016 failed to hide the increasing diversity among Member States. This undeniable reality, earlier described by the Executive Director of UNODC as ‘a very b-r-o-a-d consensus’, was reflected in a weak outcome document.
  • Although the timing of the UNGASS was prompted by ongoing and disproportionate suffering and violence from the ‘war on drugs’ in Latin America, as on previous occasions, the event did little to address underlying structural problems, including arms trafficking and money laundering.
  • Despite constructive inputs from a range of UN bodies, Member States and civil society organisations, the Vienna-dominated UNGASS preparatory process suppressed discussion that questioned the existing architecture of the UN drug control system. While containing some positive attributes in relation to access to controlled medicines, health-oriented interventions and proportional sentencing, the outcome document in the main supports the status quo and fails to refer explicitly to harm reduction, decriminalization or the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences.
  • An increasing point of tension within the drug control treaty framework, the issue of regulated cannabis markets, remained very much the ‘elephant in the room’ with efforts within the outcome document to dissipate pressure resulting in denial and confusion.
  • In spite of a growing need to address the fragmentary UN approach and the recent adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the outcome document did much to sustain a siloed approach to the drug issue.
  • The UNGASS process as a whole has set the stage for more substantial changes at the next high-level meeting in 2019, in relation to human rights, the Sustainable Development Goals, regulated cannabis markets and the creation of an expert advisory group to improve the functioning and coherence of the global drug control system.