This month's elections to the International Narcotics Control Board have proven to be more about horse trading at the UN than the real issues at stake for global drug policy
On Monday the 18th, at the UN-ECOSOC session in New York, elections took place for six members of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). The Board consists of only 13 members, so almost half of this UN body was up for election. Taking a look at the INCB-section on our website quickly reveals our troubled history with this ‘quasi-judicial’ and supposedly independent body that monitors compliance with the UN drug control treaties. We’ve often commented on the positions taken in their annual report and have criticised the obstructive role the INCB has played by putting a brake on attempts to modernise the UN drug control system. Particularly their ideological opposition to the introduction of harm reduction measures and their absurd insistence on ending the traditional uses of coca leaf in the Andean region have genuinely angered us again and again. So we were hopeful that this time the composition of the Board might change for the better, bringing the INCB more in line with the rest of the UN community, easing increasing tensions with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS, and finally overcoming the long-standing archaic nature of this strange and obscure entity within the UN drug control system.
More than just hoping, we decided – for the first time – to engage in the electoral process, looking carefully at the background and expertise of the 18 candidates presented by Member States and the three candidates proposed by the WHO, and talking informally to befriended officials of ECOSOC members with voting rights about the potential benefits of strengthening the independence and the expertise of the Board, in accordance with its treaty mandate. We strongly believe in the merits of a well-functioning UN system and much of our efforts are intended to improve that. When we learned about the election results, as we were quoted in the press release of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) of which TNI is a member, 'We are appalled to see that countries, including some that support a more humane approach to drug control, have treated these elections as part of a UN power game instead of focusing on the real issues at stake for global drug policy.
This is a missed opportunity to bring the INCB closer in line with basic UN human rights principles and system-wide coherence on drug policy. Those countries that traded away their votes are responsible for politicising a UN body that is supposed to be a group of independent experts.' Indeed, our conversations with government officials and the vote count on Monday, revealed that many countries swap votes for UN positions without looking carefully at the consequences of that horse trading for the proper functioning of the UN system. Especially for a body such as the INCB, by nature and mandate meant to be independent of political interests, it is essential that elections are based on an assessment of the expertise of candidates and not subjected to UN political power plays. Also for many of the officials we talked with, it was frustrating that Foreign Office-driven interests to gain access to certain UN positions, easily overrided genuine concerns of Health Ministries to address inadequacies and contradictions at the UN level in the field of drug policy and HIV/AIDS prevention. Most obvious example is the re-election of the Russian candidate, Tatyana Dmitrieva, well-known for her anti-methadone activism using her INCB affiliation and her closeness to Russian government views against harm reduction. The vote to extend her INCB mandate for another five years was a close call, 27 votes in favour, just above the required majority of 26 votes. So just a few more countries taking the drug policy issue at stake more serious than trading voting favours for other UN positions, could have made the difference. Among the six newly elected members there are surely a few that do have the capacity and expertise to contribute to develop a more evidence-based UN drug control system, but their role will not be easy given the continued politicised environment they have to operate in.
The mandate of the INCB is by nature a difficult one, as its very existence is bound by the mandate to defend an international treaty system that is plagued with inconsistencies. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs indeed spells out that coca chewing needs to be ended and it treats cannabis exactly the same as heroin (placing it under a schedule tied to a control regime stricter than for cocaine). The 1971 Convention invented a separate category of so-called ‘psychotropic’ drugs that no-one has been able to explain to us in a convincing scientific manner during our decade of intensive interaction with the UN drug control system, and that until someone manages to do so for us is nothing more than an invention to accommodate the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. The 1988 Trafficking Convention forced countries to introduce criminal sanctions for possession of drugs for personal consumption and other minor offences, introducing disproportionate legislation and filling up prisons around the world to an unmanageable and irrational level that has completely disturbed international human rights obligations. Not a position to envy, to be elected to become member of a UN monitoring board that is supposed to defend a treaty system plagued with such inconsistencies.
It is potentially a challenging job, however, because drug policies around the world are changing rapidly. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has forced countries to adopt harm reduction policies as the only proven way to help counter that threat. Bolivia is rightfully challenging the condemnation of ancient coca traditions. More and more countries are decriminalising consumption and possession of small quantities. The conflict between human rights protection and repressive drug control measures is now prominently on the table. The issue of dramatically inadequate access to essential medicines for pain control and substitution treatment because of overly restrictive drug control regulations is gaining attention. The debate about the merits of treating cannabis in a similar way as alcohol is heating up, including in the US. Given those developments, more than ever the UN needs an expert panel to accompany those debates and policy changes with good advice. Advice that goes beyond the simplistic and narrow legalistic comments the INCB is known for, in spite of their rare but well-intentioned attempts to put controversial issues on the agenda like proportionality of sentences.
What the world urgently needs today is well-argued advice that helps to guide the international community to adapt the UN drug control system to address the challenges of today. That’s why it was so depressing to see the outcomes of the INCB elections and to witness the horse trading about UN positions that heavily influenced the results. It made clear that addressing the drug-related problems the world faces and finding the most effective policy responses, is in fact not at all high on the political agenda. In contrast to the rhetorical prominence often given to the drugs issue, and the amount of resources spent, when it comes to electing the right persons at the UN level that could provide sensible guidance, opportunities to improve the UN system in this field are apparently easily traded away for the sake of other political interests. This disappointment comes shortly after the show of incompetence of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to deal in a serious manner with the 10-year UNGASS review and to adapt UN drug control guidelines to face the global challenges of today. As TNI, we remain committed to contribute to improving the functioning of the UN drug control system, and to work with the INCB, UNODC and CND to make that happen, but we fear that many NGOs that have accompanied us in those efforts past years, have lost faith in the prospects for change and may now turn their back to the UN as a potential ally in their daily efforts to reduce drug-related harms. After these recent deceptions, we don’t have many arguments left to convince them to keep trying… www.ungassondrugs.org
Martin Jelsma, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a coordinator of TNI's Drugs & Democracy programme.