Background on the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drug Control

18 July 2005
Martin Jelsma

Background on the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drug Control
Martin Jelsma
TNI Briefing, March 1998


The "Special Session of the General Assembly to Consider the Fight Against the Illicit Production, Sale, Demand, Traffic and Distribution of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and Related Activities and to Propose New Strategies, Methods, Practical Activities and Specific Measures to Strengthen International Cooperation in Addressing the Problem of Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking" (UNGASS from now on) will take place on 8, 9 and 10 June 1998 in New York. The original impetus for such a global meeting came from Mexico, who back in 1993 proposed to hold a real Summit on the drugs issue, like the ones in Rio (on environmental issues), Kopenhagen (on social issues) and Bejing (on women's issues).

The idea was a worldwide reflexion on the efficiency and viability of anti-drug strategies in the past decade, in order to improve and adapt them with a view to the next century. In the meantime, after many deliberations and conflicts, the initial idea has been narrowed down to a Special Session on the issue, to be held ten years after the agreement of the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs ans Psychotropic Substances.

In November 1996 the General Assembly formally decided (A/51/611) to convene the special session, which should "be devoted to assessing the existing situation within the framework of a comprehensive and balanced approach that includes all aspects of the problem, with a view to strengthening international cooperation to address the problem of illicit drugs, and within the framework of the UN Convention against Illicit traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 and other relevant conventions and international instruments." It furthermore "Reaffirms that, at its special session, it will address the issue on the basis of the principle of shared responsibility and with full respect for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the UN and international law, particularly respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of States." And that the UNGASS should have the following objectives:

  1. To promote the adherence to, and full implementation by all States of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 and the UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs of 1988;
  2. To adopt measures to increase international cooperation to contribute to the application of the law;
  3. To adopt measures to avoid the diversion of chemicals used in illicit drug production and to strengthen control of the production of and traffic in stimulants and their precursors;
  4. To adopt and promote drug abuse control programmes and policies and other measures, including those at the international level, to reduce the illicit demand for drugs;
  5. To adopt measures to prevent and sanction money laundering, in order to implement the 1988 Convention;
  6. To encourage international cooperation to develop programmes of eradication of illicit crops and to promote alternative development programmes;
  7. To adopt measures to strengthen coordination within the UN system in the fight against drug trafficking and related organized crime, against terrorist groups engaged in drug trafficking and against illicit arms trade.


In 1996, the General Assembly assigned the task of preparing the session to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (one of the functional commissions of the Economic and Social Council - ECOSOC), with its seat in Vienna, Austria. On 26 and 27 March 1997 (the last two days of its 40th session period) this Commission held the first meeting in its function of preparatory body for UNGASS. When acting as PrepCom, the meetings of the commission are open to all member states, observers and NGOs with consultative status. The agreed calendar for the preparations will offer several moments to intervene in the process with proposals from NGOs. Four more meetings in Vienna were scheduled for the PrepCom:

  • 6-9 July 1997: an 'informal' meeting with emphasis on preparing proposals on the issues ‘amphetamine-type stimulants' and 'chemical precursors';
  • 7-9 October 1997: a second 'informal' meeting with emphasis on preparing proposals on the issues ‘money laundering' and ‘judicial cooperation';
  • 5 December 1997: a formal meeting with focus on the issues of 'eradication and alternative development' and elements for inclusion in the 'political declaration'; plus some administrative and budgetary issues;
  • 16 - 20 March 1998: the final 5 days of the 41th session period of the Commission, which will be fully devoted to UNGASS, and where the main decisions for June 1998 will be taken.

Exit Mexico, enter Portugal

The first conflict that surfaced in Vienna in March 1997, was on the question which country would hold the presidency during the preparatory process. Mexico presided the regular part of the 40th session period, had originated the whole process and had therefor presented itself as candidate for heading the bureau of the PrepCom. The candidacy was supported unanimously by the bloc of Latin American delegations. However, Mexico was not acceptable for the US, rooted mainly in the unrest about widespread corruption of Mexican counterdrug agencies: only a month before, in february 1997, the Mexican 'anti-drug czar' general Gutierrez Rebollo was forced to resign over allegations that he had given protection to Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the number one Mexican drug trafficker. (1) It took several hours of hard behind-the-curtains negotiations before a compromise was found in a Portuguese presidency. (2)

The Mexican delegation, who had high hopes of gaining the presidency and had already put a lot of energy in preparing this first PrepCom meeting, was clearly frustrated by this marginalisation, and has continued to play a very active role from its bench during the whole preparatory process. In order to break the stalemate, Mexico did in the end 'voluntarily' withdraw its candidacy. Informally, Portuguese officials confirmed that otherwise they would never have accepted to take over.

Portugal is gradually becoming a major international player around the drugs issue, which undoubtedly played a role when this country was put forward as an acceptable alternative candidate for the PrepCom presidency. Since its establishment in 1994, Lisbon is the seat of the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs & Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA). Early 1997, Portugal acquired presidency -up till the year 2000- of the Pompidou Group, the influential intergovernmental structure for drug control cooperation, set up in 1980 within the Council of Europe.

The international conference 'Drugs - Dependence and Interdependence' was also held in Lisbon, on 23-25 March 1996. It was organised jointly by the North South Centre of the Council of Europe (also based in Lisbon), the then embryonic European NGO Council on Drugs and Development (ENCOD), the Portuguese Parliament and the Portuguese Secretary of State for Development Cooperation. The conference can be referred to as a successful experience in 'quadrilogue' (a meeting ground for parliamentarians, governments, NGOs and local authorities) which could be learned from when considering the procedures for NGOs to interact with the UNGASS and with the preparatory process leading up to it. Portugal at least seems to be sensible to the argument that NGO participation is crucial in the debate on the future of drug policies.

The Agenda

Most of the time of the first PrepCom meeting in 1997 in Vienna was devoted to the agenda setting for UNGASS next year. Several delegations stressed the importance that the upcoming global event should mark the end of the "era of finger-pointing" in international drug policy controverse. The old dichotomy between producer and consumer countries should give way to the principle of 'shared responsibility' as the cornerstone in international drug control. The agenda, therefore, should reflect a balanced approach that includes all aspects of the drugs problem, and should focus on those points which have been underexposed in the existing conventions. Following common UN practice the agenda will include a 'General Debate' section, where each member state can raise issues of particular concern. But the main items on the agenda, for which documents will be prepared during the preparatory process, will be:

  • Political Declaration to be approved by the UNGASS in New York, which could take the form of an adapted 'Global Action Plan to Combat Drugs' for the decade starting in the year 2000, when the 'UN Decade Against Drug Abuse 1991-2000' ends and the accompanying 'Political Declaration and Global Programme of Action' expires. This Declaration was adopted at the last preceeding UNGASS on drugs, in February 1990. Several delegates mentioned the importance of the 'Anti-Drug Strategy in the Hemisphere' (a document approved by the CICAD, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission of the OAS in October 1996 in Buenos Aires) as an example to take into account when drafting a new global Political Declaration.
  • A document outlining 'Guiding Principles on Drug Demand Reduction' will be adopted at UNGASS. It will constitute "the very first international agreement whose sole objective is to examine the problems, both indicidually and collective, that arise because a person might or does abuse drugs".
  • An 'Action Plan against Manufacture, Trafficking and Abuse of Amphetamine-type stimulants' (like XTC and speed) is being prepared; the possibility has been mentioned to propose amendments to the classification of drugs under the 1971 Convention, in order to facilitate the inclusion of groups of substances into Schedules II, III and IV.
  • Measures will be proposed to improve international control of chemical precursors;
  • Measures to promote international judicial and law enforcement cooperation, like extradition, mutual legal assistance, transfer of proceedings, etc.;
  • A re-afirmation of international commitment to the 1988 Convention provisions on proceeds of crime, and the establishment of principles upon which further anti-money laundering measures should be based;
  • Illicit crop eradication and alternative development. At first this issue did not appear at all in the proposal for the agenda, but the 'alternative development' subject was added to it under substantial pressure from various Latin American delegations; the phrase 'crop eradication' was then added to 'complete' the item, since the two are supposedly 'inseparable' and since the General Assembly had combined them in their agenda suggestions. Main document on this issue will be a UNDCP proposed 'Global Plan for the Elimination of Illicit Narcotic Crops'. An outline for this plan was presented on the 5th of December, the full plan will be available at the 16-20 March 1998 PrepCom meeting.

Regarding the organisational aspects and protocol of the meeting, clearly, it will be a political session, for which attendance will go far beyond the permanent UN ambassadors strengthened with issue experts. Many heads of state and ministers will be included in the national delegations, politicizing the debates. In the case of the drugs issue this unfortunately generally is a disadvantage. There seems to be a growing gap between the drug experts level on the one hand, where many of the deficiencies of the applied strategies are recognised and to a certain extent agreed upon and on the other hand the political level where the main recognition seems to be that there is a lot to lose, many conflicts to expect and very little to gain with challenging the established principles. Pronouncing oneself in favor of radically different approaches definitively means risking to lose valuable friends and can easily end one's political career.

The 'Global Plan for the Elimination of Illicit Narcotic Crops'

The 'Global Plan' aims at the worldwide elimination of illicit coca bush and opium poppy within 10 years (in 2008 that is), as a first and decisive step to rid the world of its drug problem. With the announcement of a final date the UNDCP seeks a political and financial commitment of the international community. In an interview with the Italian daily Repubblica, the executive director of the UNDCP, the Italian Pino Arlacchi, said the plan would cost five billion US$, and has to be financed by the UN member states. Alledgedly the plan has met considerable scepticism. It is considered very "ambitious", but its attainability is widely questioned.

Interesting to note is that the initial outline of the plan (see: document E/CN.7/1997/PC/CRP.11) does not mention a fixed 10-year period. The only document mentioning a 10-year period is the draft proposal of the United States on 'Eradication of Illicit Narcotic Crops and Promotion of Alternative Development Prorammes' for the declaration at UNGASS (see: document E/CN.7/1997/PC/CRP.9). Point 3 of the US proposal says: "States should commit to ending all illicit cultivation of opium poppy and coca bush by the year 2008, using all available means, including alternative development, eradication and law enforcement".

Although one can sceptical about the 'Global Plan' it has some disquieting elements. For instance, it proposes to blend alternative development (crop substitution) with law enforcement measures to eliminate illicit narcotic crop cultivation "to provide a credible deterrent". A combination which has not worked in the past and caused considerable resistance with small-scale producers. These peasants largely depend on the cultivation of drug crops to merely survive. Exactly because it proved to be counter-productive several governments tend to separate law enforcement requirements from alternative development. The UNDCP says to have build the plan on "the experience gained and the lessons learned", but seems to be very slow of understanding.

"Safe" Methods of Eradication

Allarming is the advocacy of chemical fumigation with herbicides and biological control with microbial herbicides as a method to erradicate narcotic crops, proposed by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (see: document E/CN.7/1997/PC/CRP.8: 'International Cooperation on Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and Promotion of Alternative Development Programmes and Projects', section: 'Finding Safe Methods of Eradication'). The aerial spraying of herbicides has become a widespread counter-narcotics effort during the last years (even though "safe" herbicides apparently are not yet available). Advocated by the United States, Latin-American governments (Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, and Venezuela) increasingly tend to consider chemical fumigation as an effective measure to fight the spread of illicit crops, despite the obvious negative social, environmental and health consequences.

It is highly questionable that there ever will be "safe" herbicides, and there is grave concern about the long-term effects of the massive spreading of these chemicals in the vulnerable ecosystem of the Colombian Amazon tropical rainforest, where coca cultivation is concentrated. The Guaviare and other coca growing regions of Colombia were the scene of widespread social protest in July, August and September of 1996, when an estimated 241,000 people participated in massive marches - one of the largest peasant mobilizations in Colombian history - to protest aerial eradication, lack of government support for economic development and the increasing presence of the Colombian military. In the violence that ensued, 12 individuals were victims of extrajudicial executions and seven disappeared. A number of protest leaders subsequently received death threats and seven were killed, apparently for their involvement in the protest (see: Coca Eradication Efforts in Colombia, WOLA, June 1997).

The Colombian government sprayed 48.000 hectares of coca and poppy crop in 1997. Nevertheless the the total area with drug-crop cultivation expanded with 10 percent, according to satellite monitoring. The fields were simply moved to other areas. One can imagine what will happen next: these fields will be sprayed the next year; cultivation (which in itself is not particulary friendly to the ecosystem) will again move to other regions. A "vicious" circle, contaminating ever-increasing areas.


The controversial issue of the US decertification procedure, was heavily present in the corridors of preparatory meetings. Before the first meeting Colombia intended to reach a common position within the bloque of Latin American states to denounce this practice of unilateral sanctions against 'non-cooperative' states. Even though there was consensus on the principles, no common declaration could be agreed upon. So during the meeting (general debate section of the regular part of the Commission's session), Colombia presented its isolated protest against its condemnation by the US in very harsh wording, under the title ‘Basta ya, prepontentes de la humanidad!'. Some delegates afterwards told that the Colombian ambassador had reminded them of a maoist from the sixties.

It was this vocabulary that caused most Latin countries to abstain from endorsing the declaration. Several delegations, however, did express themselves during the session explicitly against ‘any unilateral condenation of anti-drugs performance of other states,' the sole body with the right to evaluate and judge other's performance in this area being the INCB. Mexico supposedly wants to leave open the option to still bring this matter to the UNGASS, because their delegation was very much against closing the discussion about the UNGASS agenda already during this first PrepCom meeting. They succeeded in leaving open the possibility to include another subject that comes up during the preparatory process.

Diplomatic negotiations have been ongoing throughout 1997 and early 1998 in Latin America, exploring the option of a multilateral certification procedure through f.e. the OAS/CICAD to replace the unilateral US one. Clearly, the sting has been taken out of this issue for Latin America, now Clinton -end February 1998- has granted Colombia a 'security waiver', which means a lifting of the sanctions (because of "the vital national interests of the United States") that have been applied over the past two years. The only countries for which sanctions will continue are Burma, Iran, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

'Independent' evaluation

A battle that was more or less lost at the very first preparatory meeting in Vienna already, was around the proposal to have as a basis for discussion in New York an "independent evaluation" of the efficiency of the existing conventions. The idea (prsented by the Commission's bureau for the regular segment of its session, still headed by Mexico) was to form a group of twelve independent experts to conduct such a study and prepare a document on the basis of which 'new strategies' could be proposed for the next century. However, the US, Great Britain and a few others opposed to the term 'independent', and wanted a precision of the procedure through which this group was to be selected. The compromise in the final document approved in Vienna is that the idea still continues to organise an evaluation, but that the budgetary implications and the selection procedure have to be clarified, and the word 'independent' is nowhere to be found...

NGO participation

All the PrepCom meetings (like the first one in March) will be open to NGOs with a consultative status with ECOSOC. About the possibilities for NGOs to participate in UNGASS itself, the arrangements for NGOs around the Special Session on Agenda 21 (follow-up from UNCED/Rio) which took place in June 1997, will most likely serve as the model that will be used for the drugs UNGASS as well. Many delegations, have stressed the importance of ‘broad participation' and mentioned they would favor the celebration of a ‘parallel NGO forum' around the official session. To reduce NGO input to a 10 minute speech by one representative for the whole NGO world (as was mentioned in one of the original documents) was labelled insufficient by several delegates. Also the General Assembly itself, and the Secretary General in their declarations on the issue stressed the importance of ample possibilities for NGOs to express their opinions.

Both in Vienna and in New York, several NGOs have organised themselves in an ‘NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs', consisting almost exclusively of NGOs working in the field of drug abuse prevention (for which UNDCP maintains a fund of $500,000 to distribute each year). (3) These Committees have presented already their "Proposal for NGO Activities in Support of the UN Special Session (...)". In brief, referring to the experience of the 1994 ‘World Forum on the Role of NGOs in Drug Demand Reduction' held in Bangkok, they want to convene the two days prior to UNGASS a parallel NGO Forum in New York. They have asked national delegations to the Commission to donate funds for this purpose. The Forum would be open to all NGOs who wish to participate, not exclusively to members of the committees.

Meanwhile, ENCOD has taken the initiative for a global NGO coalition working for a just and effective policy on drugs. The coalition presented a draft manifesto to present to UNGASS to revise the current damaging policies (see: Manifesto of the International Coalition of NGOs).


1. For more information on the Gutiérrez Rebollo case, see: Mexico: The Narco General Case in Crime in Uniform (TNICEDIB, October 1997)
2. The following officers were elected to form the bureau to preside the preparatory meetings:
Chairman: Mr. Alvaro de Mendonca e Moura (Portugal) (Ambassador, Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of Portugal to the UN, Vienna); Vice-Chairmen: Mr. Alberto Scavarelli (Uruguay), Mrs. N.J. Mxakato-Diseko (South Africa) and Mrs. Daniela Rozgonova (Slovakia); Vice-Chairman-cum-Rapporteur: Mr. N.K. Singh (India)
3. President of the Vienna Committee is Ms Eva Tongue of the International Council on Alcohol and Addictions (ICAA); president of the New York Committee is Ms Rosalind Harris of the International Social Service (ISS). Other member organisations of the Vienna Committee are: Centro Italiano di Solidarietà (CeIS-Italy), International Council of Women, World Organisation of the Scout Movement (WOSM), Christian Drug Prevention (Netherlands), Consumers International, Drug Abuse Prevention Centre (DAPC-Japan), SOS Drogue International, World Federation of Mental Health, Human Resource Development Institute (USA). A full list is attached to the document 'Report of the first Ad Hoc NGO Forum in Preparation for the 1988 UN General Assembly's Special Session.'