Friday, May 17, 2013

The 10 most UN-likely critics of the war on drugs

The United Nations' role in shaping and enforcing global drug prohibition becomes stranger with each passing day. On the one hand, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) implements the three UN drug conventions that form the legal basis for the global 'war on drugs' and ensures member states don't deviate from the punitive enforcement model the UN system has built. On the other, the wider family of UN agencies is concerned with guaranteeing UN principles of health, human rights, peace, development and security.

The war on drugs has, even by the UNODC's analysis, both failed to deliver on its stated goals, and had a series of disastrous unintended consequences - specifically undermining health, human rights, peace, development and security. This has inevitably created tensions between various UN agencies and led to increasingly contorted rhetoric from within the UNODC itself - as it attempts the impossible task of reconciling drug-war rhetoric and overwhelming evidence of prohibition's failure with the principles of the UN.

These tensions and contradictions become all too evident in the public statements from many UN officials, now often openly or implicitly critical of the letter and spirit of UN's own prohibitionist drug policy and legal systems. Even Executive Directors of the UNODC itself have departed from the prohibitionist orthodoxy. The range of views held by officials in other UN agencies also reflects the lack of "system-wide coherence" within the UN, with many questioning the criminalisation of users at the heart of the punitive paradigm (particularly in relation to HIV and people who inject drugs), with others going even further and advocating market regulation approaches, specifically outlawed by the UN conventions.

Below is a selection of some of the most high-profile critics of the war on drugs to come from within the UN itself.


Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General

The incumbent Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, voiced his opinion on the war on drugs in 2008, following the publication of a report by the Independent Commission on AIDS in Asia. The report was critical of drug-war policies, stating that:

 "[initiatives such as] large-scale arrests of young drug users under the 'war on drugs' programmes ... can be counterproductive and can keep large numbers of at-risk groups and people living with HIV from accessing even the limited services being provided by the countries." 

Ban Ki-moon thoroughly endorsed the report's findings, saying:

"we need to to review legislation that risks hampering universal access - in cases where vulnerable groups are criminalized for their lifestyles" 
 "I look to the United Nations family and the donor community to help advance the implementation of the report’s recommendations, including through financial and technical resources." 

Yury Fedotov, Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Despite being the current head of the specific UN agency charged with overseeing the global drug control system, Fedotov is surprisingly receptive to the idea of legally regulating certain drugs, although only, it would appear, ones that for arbitrary historical reasons, sit outside the UN convention sheduling system. This year, he wrote an article on the staggering array of 'novel psychoactive substances' (NPS or 'legal highs' ) now legally available. But rather than calling for their outright prohibition, he endorsed innovative approach being taken in New Zealand bring certain lower risk NPS within a strict a system of legal regulation, He said:

"Today, we are staring at a new drug horizon where those willing to take these substances have become the participants in a lottery that puts lives at risk. Users are potentially one tweaked molecule away from death … Innovative approaches should be applied. For example, New Zealand has enacted creative legislation that places the onus of proving the substance is safe on the seller."

Fedotov is also on record apparently endorsing a decriminalisation of users approach, saying:

"We must look into what must be done in national frameworks to see what can be done to protect the health and rights of people, so that people are not treated as criminals, but as patients, in full respect of their human rights."

How such statements will translate in a substantive shift in UNODC mandated policy and law remains to be seen, but they at least highlight the inconsistency in holding such views while at the same time maintaining the prohibitionist status quo.

Antonio Maria Costa, then Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Fedotov's predecessor, Antonio Maria Costa, famously drew attention to some of the disastrous effects of the international drug control system, the system that his agency is responsible for. In a groundbreaking report, he outlined the negative "unintended consequences" of global drug policy, which include:

  • the creation of a huge criminal black market;
  • the balloon effect, whereby if supply is squeezed in one area, it is simply displaced
  • the marginalisation of public health principles in favour of enforcement; and 
  • the discrimination faced by many people who use drugs. 
His conclusion?

"there is a spirit of reform in the air, to make the [UN drug control] conventions fit for purpose and adapt them to a reality on the ground that is considerably different from the time they were drafted".

This perhaps helps explains why Costa went on to make a number of bold reform statements, again adopting a clear decriminalisation of possession and use offences position, for example declaring that the UN drug control conventions:

"permit parties to respond to [drug-related activities] proportionally, including through alternatives to conviction or punishment for offences of a minor nature", and arguing "it is clear that the use of non-custodial measures and treatment programmes for offences involving possession for personal use of drugs offer a more proportionate response and the more effective administration of justice."

Helen Clark, Head of the United Nations Development Programme

The former Prime Minister of New Zealand, now heading up the UN's development work, clearly recognises the negative impact that the war on drugs has on developing countries, declaring:

"To deal with drugs as a one-dimensional, law-and-order issue is to miss the point ... We have waves of violent crime sustained by drug trade, so we have to take the money out of drugs ... The countries in the region that have been ravaged by the armed violence associated with drug cartels are starting to think laterally about a broad range of approaches and they should be encouraged to do that ... They should act on evidence."

Some of the political tensions within the UN are visible from the defensive press release that UNDP immediately issued following Clark's comments.

Anand Grover, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health

In his investigation into the effects of the current international drug control system for a UN report commissioned by and presented to the General Secretary, Anand Grover - whose mandate is derived from the UN Human Rights Council - recommended to the UN drug control agencies  

"that there is a need in the long term to consider alternatives to the current drug control system. One such alternative model may be the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, in which certain controlled medicines would be regulated in a manner similar to tobacco."

He also urged governments around the world to:

  • Decriminalize or de-penalize possession and use of drugs;
  • Repeal or substantially reform laws and policies inhibiting the delivery of essential health services to drug users, and review law enforcement initiatives around drug control to ensure compliance with human rights obligations; and
  • Amend laws, regulations and policies to increase access to controlled essential medicines.

Michel Sidibé, Executive Director, UNAIDS

At the 2010 International AIDS Conference, the head of the UN agency responsible for HIV/AIDS policy, joined other leaders in endorsing the following statement:

“We resolve: that harmful laws that criminalize sex work, drug use and drug possession, homosexuality and same-sex relationships, and HIV transmission must be repealed and must not be replaced by a regulatory system that is equally prejudicial. Not only do these laws lead to serious human rights abuses, but they grievously hamper access to HIV services.”

In the introduction for HRI's 2012 Global State of Harm Reduction he again made clear his support for decriminalisation of drug users:

"Punitive laws and policies, whether via prohibiting the provision of sterile injecting equipment and opioid substitution therapy, criminalising drug use,possession of injecting paraphernalia, or denying HIV treatment to people who use drugs, violate people’s right to health and harm the community.

Former senior UN figures who sit on the Global Commission on Drug Policy

Alongside the critique of the the 'war on drugs' in the Commissions flagship report, are a number of recommendations including:

"End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.

Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens."

Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General

Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Thorvald Stoltenberg, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Asma Jahangir, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions

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