Tuesday, January 18, 2011

IDPC calls on countries to abstain from objecting to Bolivian proposal to lift UN coca ban

The following press release and advocacy note were issued by the International Drug Policy Consortium (of which Transform is a partner member) on Jan 13th

TNI detail latest developments as a number of countries withdraw objections, whilst the US continues its manoeuvring to push the objection through.

Update Tuesday Jan 18: The U.S. Moves to Block Bolivia’s Request to Eliminate U.N. Ban on Coca Leaf Chewing TNI cover latest developments as US prepare to lodge their objection 

Correcting a historical error: IDPC calls on countries to abstain from submitting objections to the Bolivian proposal to remove the ban on the chewing of the coca leaf

Several governments led by the United States are mobilising to block a request by the Bolivian government to remove an international ban on the centuries-old practice of chewing coca leaves. The 18-month period to contest Bolivia’s requested amendment ends January 31, 2011.
In 2009, Bolivia’s first indigenous President, Evo Morales Ayma, sent a request to the United Nations to remove the unjustified ban on coca leaf chewing. This would amend the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and bring it in line with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Mr Morales sought to correct a historical error. He stated in his letter to the Secretary General: "Coca leaf chewing is one of the socio-cultural practices and rituals of the Andean indigenous peoples. It is closely linked to our history and cultural identity.” This ancestral practice "cannot and should not be prohibited.”
In the 1990s, a study conducted by the World Health Organisation concluded that chewing coca causes none of the harmful health or social consequences as cocaine use.  The US blocked the publication of this evidence. 

The US and a number of other governments including the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, the Russian Federation, Japan and Colombia are now planning to stop the right of Bolivians to express their own culture. They are planning to lodge formal objections to the amendment prior to the deadline on the January 31, 2011 which would result in the UN rejecting the Bolivian request.

Jeremy Corbyn, a UK Member of Parliament and the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bolivia, said, 

“At a time when drug prohibition has enriched and emboldened criminal cartels to such an extent that they are attempting to violently annex the state in parts of Mexico and Guatemala, the US is expending considerable effort in blocking the Bolivian government’s legitimate and democratic right to protect and preserve a harmless indigenous practice. The international community needs to get its priorities right and resist this culturally ignorant attempt to dictate to indigenous people in Bolivia.”

The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) calls on countries not to oppose the amendment. Ann Fordham, the Coordinator of IDPC, stated, 

Bolivia has made a reasonable and democratic request to the international community. The fact that predominantly Western countries are unwilling to allow even the slightest amendments to the drug control regime, even where they conflict with the cultural and indigenous rights, is a very worrying development.”


IDPC Advocacy Note  (available in pdf here)

In 2009, the Bolivian government requested that the United Nations amend the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs(1). The proposed amendment would remove the unjustified ban on coca leaf chewing while maintaining the strict global control system for coca cultivation and cocaine(2). The 18month period to contest Bolivia’s requested amendment ends January 31, 2011. Several countries, including the United States, Colombia, the Russian Federation, Japan, France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Denmark, are considering submitting formal objections to the Secretary General. IDPC calls on these governments to think again. The continuation of the ban clearly conflicts with official multilateral government declarations, including the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples(3). 

Protecting the indigenous and cultural right of Andean-Amazon peoples to chew coca does not undermine the international efforts to address the significant problems related to the illicit cocaine market. The amendment’s defeat would demonstrate that the international community continues to prioritise a punitive zero-tolerant approach to drug control over the rights of indigenous peoples. Objecting to the requested amendment would perpetuate an obvious violation of these liberties.

Furthermore, reasonable and technically sound amendments to the drug control Conventions should be
seen as a normal part of the modernisation process to make them fit for purpose in the 21st century.


The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs(4) is the key United Nations agreement that enshrines the global drug control system. When it was drafted and agreed, one of the drugs that Western governments wanted to bring under tight international control was cocaine. However, a dilemma existed in the widespread and culturally embedded traditional practice of chewing coca leaves in several Latin American countries (Colombia's Indigenous territories, the Brazilian Amazon, Peru and Bolivia and the North of Argentina and Chile). Unlike cocaine use, chewing coca leaf causes no known health or social problems. Nevertheless, chewing coca was banned, with governments being given twenty-five years to eradicate the practice. That deadline expired in 1989(5). Since then, the International Narcotics Control Board has constantly pressured countries to enforce the ban.

The ban on coca chewing was passed in a time when scant attention was given to cultural and indigenous rights, and records of the debate around coca leaf at that time show that the international community did not consider the rights and interests of the communities that consumed coca leaves to perpetuate religious, social, cultural and medicinal traditions.

The findings of the UN 1950 Coca Leaf Enquiry Commission report formed the justification for the ban on
coca leaf chewing in the Single Convention(6). Analysts sharply criticised the report as arbitrary, imprecise, racist, and culturally insensitive. Fifty years on, the United Nations has commendably agreed much stronger protections for indigenous rights. These resolutions raise questions regarding some aspects of the drug control conventions.

There have been several efforts to rectify this error:

1) The 1988 Trafficking Convention stipulated that any measures “shall take due account of traditional licit uses,” but immediately neutralised its possible application by holding that it could not undermine obligations assumed in previous treaties.

2) The World Health Organisation and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute initiated the Cocaine Project(7) in the early 1990s. This project concluded that traditional consumption of coca leaves has no negative health effects and fulfils positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations. However, U.S. diplomatic pressure blocked the study’s publication, revealing a  determination to assure that ideology prevails over scientific evidence.

Widespread Support for Reform

Over the past fifty years, national and international law have firmly embedded indigenous peoples’ rights in a number of legal instruments and declarations. The 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights ofIndigenous Peoples states that “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.”(8)

In April 2010, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an advisory body to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), welcomed Bolivia’s amendment on the traditional use of the coca leaf. “The Forum recommends that Member States support this initiative.”(9) In May 2009, the Forum stated that it “recognizes the cultural and medical importance of coca in the Andean region and other indigenous regions of South America” and recommended “the amendment or abolishment of the sections of the Convention relating to the custom of chewing coca leaf that are inconsistent with indigenous people´s rights to maintain their traditional practices in health and culture enshrined in Articles 11, 24 and 31 of the Declaration”(10).

Representatives of Latin American indigenous peoples have successfully fought for and secured their place in modern politics and society, defending traditional practices including the consumption of the coca leaf. Correcting the historical error banning coca use in its natural form is an indispensable measure to respect the rights of indigenous peoples in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. For example, the Bolivian UN amendment proposal arose from the recognition in the nation’s 2009 Constitution that the coca leaf is an integral part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage.(11) Peru has always maintained a legal coca market and the National Culture Institute declared coca chewing in 2005 as immaterial cultural patrimony(12). Colombia allows traditional use of coca in its indigenous reserves and Argentina also legally recognizes coca leaf use and protects the rights of its consumers(13). With the August 2009 Presidential Declaration of Quito(14), all South American nations expressed support for the Bolivian proposal, requesting that the international community respect the ancestral cultural practice of coca leaf chewing. Potential Outcomes

If no UN members submit objections by 31st January, the amendment would automatically enter into force. If some nations object, ECOSOC will have the following options:
(a) Approve the amendment, which would not apply to objecting nations;
(b) Reject the amendment in response to objections and the substantive arguments provided; or
(c) Convene a Conference of the Parties to discuss the matter

Conclusion and Recommendations

IDPC strongly urges the international community to abstain from submitting objections to the proposed
amendment to ensure that the discriminatory and scientifically unsubstantiated ban on natural coca leaf
consumption can finally be eliminated. IDPC also calls on ECOSOC Member States to support the
amendment’s approval, with the understanding that its stipulations will not apply to objecting nations.
Resolving this contradiction between the 1961 Single Convention, the 1988 Convention and the UN
Declarations on the rights of Indigenous Peoples is long overdue.

For further background information:


1.  Economic and Social Council (15 May 2009), Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as amended by  the Protocol amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 (New York, 8 August 1975) - Proposal of amendments by Bolivia to article 49, paragraphs 1 (c), E/2009/78 and 2 (e),

2. Cocaine is the concentrated alkaloid extracted from the coca plant. The process of extracting this alkaloid is difficult and lengthy, involving numerous chemicals and requiring significant quantities of coca leaves (upwards of 100 kilos). It is not economically viable to extract cocaine from sun-dried coca leaves, coca tea or coca flour available in the legal consuming markets in the Andes region. See Henman, A & Metaal, P. (2009) Coca Myths. TNI Drugs and Conflict Debate papers, June 2009, No. 17, http://www.tni.org/sites/www.tni.org/files/download/debate17_0.pdf.

3.  United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Adopted by General Assembly Resolution 61/295 on 13 September 2007, http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/en/drip.html

4. 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as amended by the 1972 Protocol,

5. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs entered into force in 1964. The deadline for banning the
chewing of coca leaves was the 12th December 1989. 

6. Economic and Social Council (May 1950), Report of the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf,

7. World Health Organization & United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, Cocaine project, http://www.tni.org/archives/docs/200703081409275046.pdf

8. Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Adopted by General Assembly Resolution 61/295 on 13 September 2007,- http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/en/drip.html 

9. Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Report on the 9th session (19-30 April 2010), E/2010/43-E/C.19/2010/15, http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/E_2010_43_EN.pdf 

10. Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Report on the 8th session (18-29 May 2009), E/2009/43 - E/C.19/2009/14, http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents /E_C_19_2009_14_en.pdf

11. Article 384 of the Bolivian Constitution: “The State protects the original and ancestral coca leaf as part of the cultural heritage, and a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity: in its natural state it is not a narcotic. Its valuation, production, trade and industrial uses will be defined by law”.
12.  Resolution 1707/INC of December 6th 2005, Peruvian National Culture Institute,

13. Criminal Law, N 23.737, 1989, Art. 15: “The possession and consumption of the coca leaf in its natural state, destined for the practice of "coqueo" or chewing, or its use as an infusion, will not be considered as possession or consumption of narcotics”. http://infoleg.mecon.gov.ar/infolegInternet/anexos/0-4999/138/norma.htm

14. Declaración Presidencial de Quito (10 August 2009), III Reunión Ordinaria del Consejo de Jefas y Jefes de Estado y de Gobierno de la Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR), http://www.comunidadandina.org/unasur/10-809Dec_quito.htm


Rob said...

What if Bolivia just ignores the UN? Would the UN be in its right to punish Bolivia?

It must be really enraging for the South Americans who have been growing and chewing the stuff for centuries, being suddenly told by busybodies from far-off alcohol soaked countries that what they're doing is wrong.

Jake said...

I think that the only country that will really try and block this is the USA.. but of course they will drag the rest of the world down with them, either through coercion or through 'financial aid'. They are most concerned that a change, i.e. removing a 'drug' from the UN 1961 resolution will weaken it/get others thinking about removing other drugs.

I hope this passes, I hope no one objects, but I know they will. In the end (sooner rather than later), I hope that Bolivia, and any other country that so chooses, has the option of using traditional Coca leaf in the same way 'we' use Coffee. Then, there will be no need to brand an entire region as criminals to justify their entire state being corrupted over such a ridiculous and failed policy.

I read somewhere that there is a way for this to pass for certain countries under a provision even if there are objections? Can anyone confirm this as I have lost the link?