Diplomatic games to oppose lifting unjust ban on coca chewing

16 January 2011
Article

According to the government of Bolivia, the only three countries that did file a formal objection to the amendment of Bolivia to abolish the ban on coca leaf chewing in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, withdrew their objections.

In 2009, President Evo Morales of Bolivia requested that the United Nations amend the 1961 UN Single Convention. The proposed amendment would remove the discriminatory and scientifically unsubstantiated ban on coca leaf chewing while maintaining the strict global control system for coca cultivation and cocaine. The 18-month period to contest Bolivia’s requested amendment ends January 31, 2011.

The president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, called Morales on Friday, to announce the withdrawal of the objection. By withdrawing its objection, Colombia followed the recommendation made at  the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) on November 26, 2010, which recognized that the chewing of coca leaf is an ancient cultural manifestation of the people of Bolivia to be respected by the international community.

Egypt was the first country to formally object in September 2009, but witdrew their objection in January 2010. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia also said it withdrew its objection. Now that the three countries that did file an objection withdrew, there are no formal objection as far as we know.  If no country objects, the amendment will automatically pass.

The United States has been lobbying with other countries to object to the Bolivian amendment but they have not filed a formal objection yet. According to Summaries of discussions of the EU Horizontal Working Party on Drugs, usually referred to as the “Horizontal Drug Group” (HDG) – the committee for drug policy falling under the European Council – the US prepared a “friends of the convention”  group to oppose the abolition of the ban on coca leaf chewing because in their opinion the request would significantly weaken the Convention.

The main reason that the US has not filed a formal objection yet seems to be that they are not sufficiently sure about the support for their objection from other countries, and want to avoid the impression that the US is leading on this. It seems they are playing a diplomatic game, trying to spread the message that many countries are going to submit an objection, and waiting for some others to do so first, so they can be seen as rather 'joining' the opposition from others than taking the lead.

It is unclear why the US would oppose the amendment which merely recognizes a  millenary indigenous cultural practice that does not cause any harm to people´s health nor any kind of disorder or addiction.

The findings of the UN 1950 Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf report formed the justification for the ban on coca leaf chewing in the Single Convention. Analysts sharply criticised the report as arbitrary, imprecise, racist, and culturally insensitive. Fifty years on, the United Nations has commendably agreed much stronger protections for indigenous rights. The 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.” The US endorsed the Declaration in December 2010.

The Bolivian UN amendment proposal arose from the recognition in the nation’s 2009 Constitution that the coca leaf is an integral part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage. In the Madrid Declaration of the European Union – Latin America and Caribbean Summit, on May 18, 2010, European countries recognized the cultural heritage of indigeneous peoples: "We reaffirm that every culture has a right to exist and to preserve its own cultural heritage. In this regard, intercultural dialogue should foster mutual understanding, safeguard diversity, and cultural identity, while fostering the development of cultural industries."

Several countries, including the United States, the Russian Federation, Japan, France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Denmark, are considering submitting formal objections to the Secretary General of the UN. The Bolivian Minister of Foreign Affairs David Choquehuanca will visit some of those countries to urge them not to object. We hope they will listen carefully to his explanations.

Jeremy Corbyn, a UK Member of Parliament and the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bolivia, said, “At a time when drug prohibition has enriched and emboldened criminal cartels to such an extent that they are attempting to violently annex the state in parts of Mexico and Guatemala, the US is expending considerable effort in blocking the Bolivian government’s legitimate and democratic right to protect and preserve a harmless indigenous practice. The international community needs to get its priorities right and resist this culturally ignorant attempt to dictate to indigenous people in Bolivia.”

Objecting to the requested amendment to lift the ban on coca chewing would perpetuate an obvious violation of the rights of indigenous peoples. You would assume that “friends of the convention” would like to get rid of the embarrassing provisions as soon as possible.

Sunday, January 16, 2011