Bolivian President Evo Morales believes that in 2012 the United Nations will finally agree that chewing of coca leaves is a legal ancient tradition of all people living in the Andes. Bolivia signed an agreement with the United Nations in 1961 that gave the country 25 years to eradicate the growing of coca. “I am convinced that next year we will win this international ‘fight’ for the recognition of chewing coca leaves as a tradition of peoples in Latin America, living in the Andes,” Morales said in an interview
Thomas Grisaffi, Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology
19 July 2011
On June 22nd under instruction from President Evo Morales (an ex-coca grower and leader of Bolivia’s powerful coca federation), Bolivia’s congress voted to withdraw from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The government’s decision to step out of the most important international legal framework for drug control generated unease in international government and policy circles. Opposition parties in Bolivia responded to the news by claiming that the government had caved into pressure from drug traffickers. Meanwhile The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime classified the decision as ‘worrying’. Contrary to these voices the Bolivian government has very good reasons to abandon the convention.
The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) regrets the decision by the Government of the Plurinational State of Bolivia to denounce the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol. On 29 June 2011, in an unprecedented step, the Government of Bolivia denounced the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol, to which the State of Bolivia had previously acceded. The Government also announced its intention to re-accede to this Convention but with a reservation regarding specific treaty provisions.
Bolivia's government has informed the United Nations it is renouncing the world body's anti-drug convention because it classifies coca leaf as an illegal drug, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday. Bolivia's decision comes after a proposal by President Evo Morales to remove language obliging countries that have signed the convention to ban the chewing of coca leaves was rejected following U.S. objections.
Bolivia initially proposed an amendment to article 49, deleting the therein contained obligation that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished”. The article allowed countries only a temporary exemption, but coca chewing had to be phased out in any case within 25 years which expired end 1989 (the 1961 Convention entered into force in December 1964). By the closure of the January 31, 2011, deadline to file objections to the Bolivian amendment, 18 objections were submitted (though the one from Ukraine seemingly did not arrive in time).
Is coca a dangerous drug that should be tightly regulated, or an essential part of Andean indigenous people's cultural and medicinal heritage? Or perhaps both? In the coming months, diplomats at the U.N. body will face the thorny issue of how to address the production and use of coca plants in the Andes region of South America.
Today the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released its annual report. I’ve been following the Board for many, many years now, have often criticized its narrow interpretation of the treaties, have questioned the validity of its usually negative comments about any policy changes in the direction of harm reduction or decriminalization, and have warned repeatedly about its tendency to overstep its clearly defined mandate.
After the closure of the January 31, 2011, deadline to file objections to the Bolivian amendment to remove the ban on coca leaf chewing in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 18 objections were submitted. Although not required, four countries explicitly submitted their support: Spain, Ecuador, Venezuela and Costa Rica. Egypt, Macedonia and Colombia withdrew their objections.
Today is the deadline for countries to submit objections to Bolivia’s proposed amendment to remove the ban on coca leaf chewing in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. As far as we know, six countries have formally notified the UN that they reject Bolivia’s amendment: the United States (January 19), Sweden (Jan 20), the United Kingdom (Jan 21), Canada (Jan 26), Denmark (Jan 28) and Germany (Jan 28). Some other European countries may add their objections today.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Andean Information Network (AIN), and more than 200 other concerned organizations and individuals yesterday sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling for the Obama administration to immediately withdraw its objection to Bolivia’s proposed amendment to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Bolivia would continue its campaign to remove from a United Nations convention a ban on coca leaf chewing and take its case to the Economic and Social Council, if necessary, Pablo Solón, the country’s Permanent Representative said today at a Headquarters press conference.
Bolivians chewed coca leaves in demonstrations around the country Wednesday to push for a change in a 1961 UN convention to remove a ban on a practice that has been part of indigenous cultures here for millennia. Protesters gathered outside the US embassy in La Paz to chew the leaf as part of a day of demonstrations around the country celebrating the coca plant and demanding that the UN Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs be amended.
Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca is on a European tour in a bid to drum up support for taking coca off a UN treaty on banned drugs. Spanish foreign minister Trinidad Jimenez told Mr Choquehuanca in Madrid that she "understood" Bolivia's demand and would try to mediate with other European countries thought to be considering an objection. Spain has already given its support to the Bolivian campaign. The US sent a letter to the United Nations saying it was opposed to the move.
The constraint on fresh thinking was on shameful display this week. A UN convention, reaffirmed in 2009, imposes a blanket prohibition on drugs. This includes even the traditional use of coca leaves by Andean Indians for chewing and tea. This ban has never been enforced and in 2009 Bolivia asked the UN to lift it—though not restrictions on coca cultivation for cocaine. With a deadline of the end of this month, America has lodged an objection and Britain looks poised to follow (see article). Traditional uses of coca are not addictive and are as much part of Andean culture as a cuppa is in Britain or beer in Texas. One reason for objecting seems to be that approval might open up a wider debate about legalising drugs.
The United States’ State Department’s website recommends coca tea for altitude sickness, and its La Paz embassy has been known to serve it to visitors. The UN’s declaration on indigenous peoples, which the United States endorsed last month, guarantees the protection of “cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions”.
Spain will not put forward any objection to the Bolivian proposal to remove the obligation to abolish coca chewing from the 1961 UN Single Convention on drugs. Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez said that “Spain has from the very beginning shown its understanding for Bolivia's position” and has “demonstrated this in various fora at European and international level.” Other European countries, such as France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Denmark, are considering submitting formal objections. Because Spain will not object and several other EU countries tend more to the Spanish position, a common European Union position will not be possible. Read the press release of Bolivian embassy in Madrid.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) have learned that the United States is moving to oppose, as soon as this week, Bolivia’s formal request to remove the obligation to ban the chewing of coca leaves— an indigenous practice dating back more than 2,000 years. TNI and WOLA strongly encourage countries to support Bolivia’s proposal, which is a legitimate request based on scientific evidence and respect for cultural and indigenous rights.