Conflicting views and policies within the UN system on harm reduction have become a major concern. Consistency in messages is crucial especially where it concerns joint global programmes such as the efforts to slow down the HIV/AIDS epidemic; efforts in which harm reduction practices like needle exchange and substitution treatment play a pivotal role.
In a new report released in February 2008 by the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), the INCB comes in for some heavy criticism for being overly secretive, closed to external dialogue with civil society, and out of kilter with similar agencies in other UN programmes. IHRA also debunks the INCB’s defence that it is ‘unique in international relations’.
The 50th Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), held in Vienna from 12-16 March 2007 was the last such event before the watershed year of 2008, when the international community will review progress against the objectives set at the General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), held in New York in 1998. The key decision that had to be taken at the 2007 CND was the timing and procedure for the UNGASS review.
The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) – of which TNI is a member – published a second version of its Advocacy Guide that provides an update on the emerging process for the review of global policies on controlled drugs being conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. It describes the latest situation on the planning for the review, and sets out the IDPC position on which issues need to be addressed in the review, and how these issues may be tackled in order to achieve a constructive outcome.
The backbone of the United Nations drug control system consists of three UN Drug Conventions. The prohibition of potentially harmful substances has its origin in the desire to protect human well-being. However, the way in which the global regime was set up decades ago and the escalation of repression it has brought about since, has been an historical mistake increasing rather than diminishing the problems. There is no point now in dreaming about how the world might have looked without it, or deluding ourselves that all the problems could be solved by scrapping the conventions. The challenge is to create the political space which would allow a reform process to move ahead. A process guided by pragmatism, open-mindedness and evaluation of practices on the basis of costs and benefits; providing leeway for experimentation and freedom to challenge the wisdom of the existing conventions.
The international legal status of the coca leaf and of its traditional uses in the Andes has long been ambiguous and contested. While the International Narcotics Control Board in 1994 stated its intention to remove those ambiguities, it has instead moved towards a more intolerant criticism of policies carried out by countries like Bolivia in their renewed promotion of coca.
Weaknesses in the United Nations drug control system have often been identified, related to the functioning of the key organs – the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) –, related to collaboration with the wider UN system – the World Health Organistaion (WHO), UNAIDS, UN Development Programme (UNDP), etc. – and related to the outdated character of several treaty provisions.
On 21-23 February we organised our now seventh ‘informal drug policy dialogue’, this time in collaboration with the Ecuadorian government and with WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America). Government officials were present from seven Latin American countries, in total some 45 persons participated in the meeting. Much of the agenda was focussed on the preparations for the upcoming UNGASS review process in Vienna. One of the most inspiring themes was Ecuador's proposal to pardon drug couriers.
This new report, co-authored by the HR2 team, looks at the tensions between some aspects of the global drug control system and international human rights law. The report highlights that, despite numerous instances of human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of drug control, there has been little engagement with this issue by the responsible bodies, the UNODC, INCB and the human rights treaty bodies. The report was published by the Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme, and is co-authored by IHRA, Human Rights Watch and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
When the INCB Annual Report for 2007 – under embargo until March 5 – started to circulate about a month ago, I was in complete shock after reading the worst ever paragraphs on coca written in UN history for several decades. The position taken by the Board now can be characterized by no more talk about the need to solve 'long-standing ambiguities in the conventions', not a shred of sympathy anymore for traditional customs or rights of indigenous peoples, no trace of cultural sensitivity at all, an all-out attack against coca chewing, drinking of coca tea or any other uses of coca in its natural form in the Andean region and the northern parts of Argentina and Chile.
Read here the full text of the controversial statements on coca leaf included in this year's Annual Report of the INCB. Some highlights:
> "The Board calls upon the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to initiate action without delay with a view to eliminating uses of coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing" and "each party to the Convention should establish as a criminal offence, when committed intentionally, the possession and purchase of coca leaf for personalconsumption". > "The Board again calls on the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to consider amending their national legislation so as to abolish or prohibit activities that are contrary to the 1961 Convention, such as coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of mate de coca (coca tea)".
Cocaleros in Bolivia threathen to occupy the installations of the United Nations in the country as well as those of Coca Cola in El Alto in protest against the decision by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to "abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea," according to the newspaper La Razón.
We don’t ban beer and spirits because some folk abuse alcohol. Yet as part of its bid to stamp out illicit cocaine consumption, the United Nations drug watchdog is telling millions of indigenous South Americans to ditch their millennia-old coca-chewing and coca tea-making traditions — and calling on their governments to criminalize the activities.
Peter Sarosi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union reports on the hearing at the European Parliament organized by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The event discussed the past 10 years of global drug control policies and aimed “to address all the aspects of the UN Drug Control Strategy and the steps to be taken to ensure that the Member States, the EU and the UN promote a more pragmatic approach on drugs strategies at the national, European and international level.”
In response to the 2007 annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which called on countries to 'abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea', President Evo Morales of Bolivia sent a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon to express profound concern and discontent with the INCB in relation to the coca leaf, the practice of chewing it and the other traditional uses that have 3,000 years of history and are fully legally recognised in Bolivia.
Recently, TNI put online the Report of the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf, that was published in 1950 and provided the rationale for the inclusion of the coca leaf in the 1961 Single Convention. The report is difficult to find nowadays. A classic article, "The New Politics of Coca", by Andrew Weil, published in The New Yorker (May l5, 1995) describes how the chairman of the Commission Howard B. Fonda approached the study.
Yesterday, President Evo Morales of Bolivia sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon rejecting the recommendations of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to "abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea." Morales qualified the attitude of the INCB as colonial and accused the Board members of lacking the necessary scientific background.
Bolivian officials at a conference on illegal drugs in Vienna are planning to ask the UN to remove the coca plant from its list of dangerous drugs. The UN's International Narcotics Control Board has called on Bolivia to ban coca chewing, and the use of the plant in products such as tea. Bolivia says such a ban would be an attack on its culture.