Beyond 2008 – a truly remarkable event

Saturday, July 12, 2008

beyond2008flatEarlier this week, 7-9 July, 300 delegates met in Vienna for the Beyond 2008 NGO Forum meant to provide civil society input for the 10-year UNGASS review. It was the culmination of a series of regional NGO consultations that took place over the past six months all across the globe. Given the wide range of views held by NGOs many – including myself – were sceptical about the outcomes of the process. Would it really be possible to agree by consensus on a joint declaration and resolutions? Well, we did it…

The chosen format for the Beyond 2008 meeting resembled a session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) where government delegates discuss the world drug situation and adopt policy resolutions. Observers from NGOs and international organizations are allowed to attend. This time it was the other way around. In the same conference hall, NGO delegates negotiated resolutions and government representatives were allowed as observers.

As was to be expected, many issues triggered complicated debates, but after a first worrying day gradually a mood of consensus-seeking started to grow. Where sharp disputes appeared in the plenary, the issue was deferred to an informal drafting group to come up with compromise language. In those corridor meetings long and sometimes tense negotiations took place on issues such as harm reduction, definitions of ‘drug use’, ‘illicit use’, ‘misuse’ and ‘harmful use’, the involvement of most affected groups including drug users in policy making, the unintended negative consequences of the current drug control system, the eradication of drug-linked crops in absence of viable development alternatives, etc.

The draft texts on the table were based on the outcomes of the regional consultations and excluded some issues that had proven to be too controversial or had not been raised in the preparatory process for other reasons. The attempts to incorporate new paragraphs led to some frustrations, as tabling new proposals was postponed until finishing the existing draft, by when no time was left to discuss them. This happened for example to paragraphs calling for a review of the current drug control framework including a possible revision of the treaties, calling for the UN drug conventions to be interpreted in a manner consistent with UN human rights obligations, or calling for support to declassify the coca leaf by taking it off the list of prohibited substances.

Still, many other issues were thoroughly discussed and the ultimate outcome is a set of recommendations containing clear harm reduction and human rights language, calling for evidence-based, culturally and socially sensitive approaches, calling for inclusion of all affected and stigmatised populations, access to alternative livelihoods before eradication, improved access to essential medicines under treaty control, encouraging alternatives to criminal/prison sanctions, analysing unintended consequences of the drug control system, taking into account traditional licit uses, and many more. A remarkable accomplishment that will impress many officials now involved in the UNGASS review process as this can be presented as a consensus outcome of NGOs from all around the world and from all different ideological perspectives.

Already during the sessions there was serious interest and attendance from UNODC as well as governments. UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, Namibian Ambassador Ms Selma Ashipala-Musavyi currently President of the CND, and the French Ambassador on behalf of the EU all addressed the meeting on the first day. Mr Costa challenged TNI directly in his speech about our response briefing to the just-released World Drug Report, saying that if we really think we have better data we should put them on the table and we can have a rational debate about it. A challenge we are happy to take up and we’ve started exploring some options about how to organise that together with UNODC’s research section. On the harm reduction issue, the careful listener to Costa’s speech could hear some retraction about his support for harm reduction in a number of recent speeches and papers. Someone must have leaned on him to be more careful in his wording, which now included strong emphasis on ‘abstinence’ as the overarching primary objective and positive reference to the ‘ABC’ principle developed by the US as the basic principles for HIV/AIDS prevention (“Abstinence, Be faithful, Condoms”).

US government 'Observer', in black, conferring with two of the US-based zero-tolerance groups

The CND President, who took off on a rather outdated note talking about a ‘drug-free world’ (she’s new to this…) stayed on to follow a substantial part of the discussions which is very much appreciated. Quite a few representatives from the Vienna missions showed up during the meeting. A high US official stretched her ‘observer’ status to the limit by working intimately together with the Drug Free America Foundation, co-drafting amendments and immediately alerting whenever a text appeared that conflicted with US policy principles.

There were definitely flaws and weaknesses in the process. One key omission was the absence of farmer representatives or NGOs working on cultivation issues in the regional consultations. There were very few now at the forum, but it was clear all along that the focus was primarily on drug use. The issues related to cultivation, production, conflict or development were therefore largely absent from the discussion. The Global Forum of Producers of Crops Declared to be Illicit, to be held in January 2009 in Barcelona, can hopefully fill this gap and still present a number of recommendations from the far other end of the chain to the March 2009 high level CND meeting where the UNGASS review process will come to its conclusion.

Still the Beyond 2008 Forum was a most worthwhile exercise with substantial debate, newly found common ground and unexpected outcomes. The Vienna NGO Committee, especially Michel Perron and David Turner who guided the proceedings, and Mirella Dummar Frahi who played a key role as UNODC liaison person, deserve applause for making all this happen.

For the occasion of the Beyond 2008 NGO Forum, TNI published an overview of its work over the past decade: Ten Years - TNI Drugs & Democracy Programme 1998-2008 (PDF)

Check out the website of the Vienna NGO Committee for the reports of the regional consultations, and a nearly finished version (only failing some technical editing) is available here.

The International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have written daily blogs about details of the proceedings.