Rejuvenation or defection

Some reflections on UNODC Executive Director Fedotov's opening speech
21 March 2011
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In his opening speech at the 54th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov disagreed with critics that the 50 year old 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is out of date, but urged the international community to rejuvenate the convention. There is a bewildering inconsistency in Fedotov’s statement: if the convention is not out of date, one wonders why it needs to be rejuvenated.

The 50 year anniversary of the Convention is an opportune moment to start considering treaty reform, the Transnational Institute concluded in a briefing written for the occasion, Fifty Years of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs: A Reinterpretation. In recalling the history of the Single Convention, the briefing clearly shows that the misplaced aura of sacred immutability that currently shrouds the contemporary UN treaty framework is out of date and inconsistent.

The 1961 Single Convention failed to serve one of its original purposes of becoming the ‘single’ convention on all drug related issues of international concern. Two more conventions were needed in 1971 and 1988 to complete the current UN drug control system, giving rise to all kinds of new inconsistencies.

The call of Fedotov to rejuvenate a convention that is not out of date is odd, but at least it recognizes that modernization is needed. However, the likelihood that the convention can be modernized received a severe blow on January 31 this year, when 18 countries opposed the amendment by Bolivia to remove the obligation to abolish the practice of coca chewing from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The coca chewing ban in the 1961 Single Convention is the most obvious example of how out of date it is, TNI demonstrates in another briefing, Lifting the ban on coca chewing: Bolivia’s proposal to amend the 1961 Single Convention. The decision to ban coca chewing is based on an obsolete 1950 report elaborated by the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf that would embarrass every scientist and policy maker if it would be written today because of its blatantly racist content.

Nevertheless, the decision to outlaw coca chewing based on the report is still in effect today. A scientific update formally sanctioned by a UN agency has not been undertaken since. Even the main objector to Bolivia’s proposal, the United States, now says to respect “the culture of indigenous peoples and recognizes that coca chewing is a traditional custom in Bolivian culture,” a statement that is inconsistent with the convention and the underlying 1950 report.

The decision not to support Bolivia’s amendment “is based on the importance to maintain the integrity of the 1961 Convention, which constitutes an important tool for the global fight against drug trafficking,” according to the US objection. A more ‘negative signal’ regarding the integrity of the treaty system is difficult to imagine, coming from countries ostensibly protecting it. The objectors are essentially saying to Bolivia “we don’t really have a problem with coca chewing, but we prefer that you keep violating the Convention rather than try to change it according to the established procedures.”

According to the objecting countries, the importance of defending the “integrity” of the drug control treaty system essentially overrules the obvious violation of indigenous rights enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Behind this position lies the fear that allowing Bolivia’s amendment to be adopted might open a Pandora’s Box. The Single Convention, in this view, must be regarded as sacrosanct, cast in stone, and allowing any changes would jeopardize the control system.

Over the last decade rapidly widening differences about the effectiveness of the drug control system have begun to split international drug control consensus, TNI outlined in The Development of International Drug Control: Lessons learned and strategic challenges for the future. The zero-tolerance ideology embedded in the 1961 UN Single Convention is increasingly challenged by calls for decriminalisation, harm reduction and embedding human rights principles in drug control. In recent years the merits of a regulated legal market for cannabis has been accepted as part of the mainstream debate about a more effective control model.

These are all obvious signs that the UN drug control system needs a change. However, the bottom line is that we are stuck with a convention that is obsolete, impossible to amend and which has lost its integrity. Opting for decriminalisation and harm reduction, an increasing number of states already have begun a widespread “soft defection” from the zero-tolerance repressive model. When rejuvenation is not possible, more and more countries will have to face the same dilemma as Bolivia: withdrawal from one or all of the UN drug control conventions and adhere again with a reservation. That would render the conventions into empty shells.

Next year, in 2012, the world will commemorate a century of international drug control. A small group of countries initiated the development of international drug control with the signing of the International Opium Convention on 23 January 1912 in The Hague. What the world needs now is a another small group of countries willing to rejuvenate: to recognize that the current treaty framework is no longer fit for purpose and initiate its urgently needed reform by designing the outlines of a realistic new legal framework for the next century, based on the many lessons learned over the past hundred years.


TNI will host a side event at the 54th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Several speakers will critically examine the significance and shortcomings of the 1961 UN Single Convention, explain how plants and traditional use are treated under its provisions, and discuss the current state of affairs of Bolivia's amendment proposal on coca chewing.

Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 13:00, Mozart Room in the Vienna International Centre (VIC Restaurant - Ground Floor, F Building)

Monday, March 21, 2011