The President of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Raymond Yans, has voiced grave concern about the outcome of recent referenda in the United States of America that would allow the non-medical use of cannabis by adults in the states of Colorado and Washington, and in some cities in the states of Michigan and Vermont. Mr. Yans stated that “these developments are in violation of the international drug control treaties, and pose a great threat to public health and the well-being of society far beyond those states”.
Since 1909 the international community has worked to eradicate the abuse of narcotics. A century on, the efforts are widely acknowledged to have failed, and worse, have spurred black market violence and human rights abuses. How did this drug control system arise, why has it proven so durable in the face of failure, and is there hope for reform?
The response to the Board’s Annual Report for 2011 is organised under 5 inter-related headings: issues surrounding the Board’s homage to the Hague Opium Convention; the flaws within its thematic chapter on ‘social cohesion, social disorganization and illegal drugs’; the INCB’s hostility towards the endeavours of Bolivia to adjust its position towards the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and coca; the continuation of mission creep and a proclivity of the Board to operate beyond its mandate and the reoccurrence of selective reticence, specifically the lack of comment on issues relating to human rights and harm reduction.
Damon Barrett (Deputy Director at Harm Reduction International)
04 April 2012
When the UN's drugs watchdog, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), was asked recently about its official position on torture carried out in the name of drug enforcement, one would have expected an unequivocal denunciation. Instead, what was given was an unequivocal refusal to do so. In the light of documented cases of torture to extract information from suspects and to punish drug users and those convicted of drug offences, this refusal to condemn the most egregious of human rights abuses is cause for serious concern and highlights clear tensions between the UN human rights and drug control regimes.
On several recent occasions, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has refused to offer an opinion on sanctions that violate international law, such as the death penalty. The following is a transcript from a Civil Society Dialogue with the President of the INCB, Hamid Ghodse, during the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs on 15 March 2012. For a commentary on the dialogue please see the article at Inter-Press Service titled, ‘Narcotics Watchdog Turns Blind Eye to Rights Abuses’.
In a world where drug offences are punishable with the death penalty, torture or arbitrary detention, we must ask how far States can go to enforce the global prohibition on drugs. According to the so-called ‘guardian’ of the international drug control treaties – as far as they want. On several recent occasions, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has refused to offer an opinion on sanctions that violate international law – even if those sanctions are imposed in order to comply with the drug control treaties.
On several recent occasions, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has refused to offer an opinion on sanctions that violate international law – even if those sanctions are imposed in order to comply with the drug control treaties. This struck many as odd. As a quasi-judicial entity, one would have expected the INCB to know that the death penalty for drug offences is not permitted in international law. Or that the UN Human Rights Committee, another UN quasi-judicial mechanism which oversees the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, had already called for its abolition in Thailand. Apparently not. In response to emails and letters of concern, the INCB said that criminal sanctions are the 'exclusive prerogative' of States.
A growing number of nations are developing policies that shift away from the prohibition-oriented failed approach to drugs control. Ultimately however nations will need to reform the overall UN based global drug control framework of which practically all nations are a part.
This note provides an overview of human rights and international law concerns raised by the 2011 Annual Report of the International Narcotics Control Board. These include questionable legal reasoning by the Board; the absence of broader human rights norms; problematic statements on specific issues; unqualified comments and support for policies despite human rights risks; and stigmatising language unbecoming a UN entity. These are patterns that are evident in previous Annual Reports.
Recent years have seen a growing unwillingness among increasing numbers of States parties to fully adhere to a strictly prohibitionist reading of the UN drug control conventions; the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (as amended by the 1972 Protocol), the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances; and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.
The terms used in the preface to the 2011 INCB annual report leave no doubt as to the illness afflicting this UN body: a (deep) regret  is running through its old veins. Yet again, its poison is directed at Bolivia, that small country which dares to challenge and stretch what is allegedly firm and static, and all in the name of an old indigenous habit. This saga must come to a close sometime soon, both parties must have thought, but as yet no happy ending is in sight.
The UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which monitors implementation of the global drug treaties, has trained its fire on Bolivia, this time accusing the country of threatening the integrity of the entire international drug control regime by defending traditional uses of the coca leaf.
In a letter to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) the Government of Bolivia rejects the judgments made by the independent agency of the United Nations after a visit in December 2011 and the conclusions of the Board on the decision to withdraw from the 1961 UN Single Convention and re-adhere with a reservation that would allow for the use of coca in its natural state within Bolivian territory an uphold the traditional practice of coca chewing. The Bolivian government says the INCB is overstepping its mandate. TNI publishes an unofficial translation of the original spanish version of the letter.