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U.N. ‘Shadow Report’ Blasts Drug War as ‘Failure’

U.N. 'Shadow Report' Blasts Drug War as 'Failure'
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U.N. ‘Shadow Report’ Blasts Drug War as ‘Failure’

Will the U.N. take heed when it revisits the question of drug policy in 2019?

An international network of non-governmental organizations has submitted a “shadow report” to the United Nations, concluding that the war on drugs has been a “spectacular failure” — and calling on the world’s governments to reconsider it. The report takes heart from the growing official tolerance of cannabis in several countries around the world, but warns of escalating and horrific repression in the name of drug enforcement in several others.

The International Drug Policy Consortium, a global coalition of some 170 nonprofit organizations, released their “civil society shadow report” on Oct. 21, documenting how the U.N.’s own goal, officially adopted in 2009, to “eliminate or reduce significantly illegal drugs markets” has been “spectacularly missed” — and has instead led to human rights abuses all over the world. The report urges world leaders to adopt a new, more tolerant and realistic drug policy when the U.N. revisits the question at the 10-year mark next March.

The IDPC report, titled “Taking Stock: A Decade of Drug Policy,” crunches the United Nations’ own data, and complements it with academic research, as well as field reports and analysis from civil society groups. It notes that the role of civil society in the design, implementation and evaluation of global drug policy was recognized in the U.N.’s 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on drugs, as well as in the Outcome Document of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

The report states that the targets set in the 2009 declaration “have not been achieved, and in many cases have resulted in counterproductive policies.” The report also emphasizes that the U.N.’s official analyses have overlooked key points. “Focusing exclusively on measuring the scale of the illegal drug market is clearly not enough to understand the impact of drug policy on the key U.N. Charter commitments to health, human rights, development, peace and security,” the report reads. 

No Big Surprise: Prohibition & Eradication Are Counter-Productive

In 2009, the U.N. identified two “targets” for drug policing. The first was to “eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably the illicit cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis plant.”

However, the IDPC report finds that data from the U.N.’s own Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) “shows no reduction in the global scale of cultivation of opium, coca and cannabis between 2009 and 2018.”

In fact, opium cultivation has in fact increased by 130 percent, the report concluded, adding that information on cannabis cultivation was unavailable, but that there was no sign of reduction.

The UNODC’s 2009 World Drug Report estimated that between 200,000 and 641,800 hectares around the world were under cannabis cultivation. While the UNODC has not updated its estimate for total hectares under cultivation since then, the 145 countries where cannabis is produced represent 94 percent of the world’s total population.

The second target of the 2009 declaration was to “eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably the illicit demand for narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances; and drug related health and social risks.”

The IDPC shadow report similarly finds no progress — in fact, just the reverse.

“The overall number of people aged 15 to 64 who used drugs at least once in 2016 is estimated at 275 million, representing a 31 percent increase since 2011,” the report notes. “The main drug of choice remains cannabis, followed by opioids, and amphetamines for which consumption has increased by 136 percent since 2011.”

The Human Rights Costs of the War on Drugs

Not only has the eradicationist approach not worked, but it has had a grave impact in other areas — most notably human rights.

“Over the past decade, overly punitive drug policies focusing on eradicating the illegal drug market have been associated with wide-ranging human rights violations,” the shadow report finds. “These abuses have had dire implications on the lives of marginalized people and communities worldwide.”

The most obvious impact has been on the “right to life.” At least 3,940 people were executed for a drug offense over the past decade, with 33 jurisdictions worldwide retaining the death penalty for drug crimes.

There are signs of hope here — since 2009, countries including India, Iran, Malaysia and Thailand “have taken steps to reduce or eliminate the use of capital punishment for drug offenses.” But others are moving to reinstate the practice, with such legislation pending in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

The report especially notes the “recent escalation of punitive drug policies in South and South East Asia.” It estimates that President Rodrigo Duterte’s draconian crackdown in the Philippines has now resulted in the extrajudicial killings of over 27,000 people since he took office in June 2016.

Other countries in the region are emulating Duterte’s example. In Bangladesh, at least 200 people were killed at the hands of the police between May and July 2018.

Then, there’s the use of torture. The report especially calls out Indonesia and Russia for using beatings and other torture methods to extract confessions or information from drug suspects. The report emphasizes that the prohibition against such methods in the U.N. Convention Against Torture is “absolute and non-derogable, even in time of public emergency.”

The report also names Russia for use of arbitrary arrests and planted evidence against the drug suspects — and notes one case (not the only one) in which such methods have been used for purposes of political repression. In 2013, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Russian anti-corruption campaigner Denis Mateev had been falsely imprisoned on a drug charge.

Arbitrary detentions are especially fast on the rise in South and Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the new “drug war” launched in January 2017 has resulted in an 80 percent increase in arrests. In Bangladesh, more than 25,000 people were arrested in anti-drug sweeps between May and June 2018, the report notes.

In countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico, pre-trial detention is mandatory for all drug suspects — in defiance of recommendations from the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions.

Rejecting a ‘Drug-Free World’

The IDPC’s shadow report portrays these abuses as the bitter fruit of the approach summed up in the United Nation’s special session slogan adopted in 1998: “A drug-free world, we can do it.” This slogan was unveiled along with the SCOPE plan — the Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination by 2008. Supported by the U.S., the SCOPE plan was met with strong criticism from nonprofit organizations and civil society groups at the time, which ultimately prevented it from being formally adopted.

However, some of its language was included in the 1998 Political Declaration, especially in paragraph 19, which called for “eliminating or reducing significantly” illicit cultivation of opium, coca and cannabis over the next decade.

This language was re-incorporated in 2009. Next year, the General Assembly will have the opportunity to rethink it.

The shadow report recommends that the U.N. consider “adopting more meaningful goals and targets” in line with international human rights commitments and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — and “move away from targets seeking to eliminate the illegal drug market.”

The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals include the elimination of poverty and hunger by 2030, as well as guaranteeing good health, quality education and gender equality for all world citizens.

The report especially names the International Narcotics Control Board, “considered as the most conservative U.N. drug control body,” as pushing policies that seek to “eliminate” illegal drugs without regard for their human rights impact.

International Change of Heart on Medical Cannabis

But the report did note that one crack in the dogmatic edifice has appeared: a “noticeable difference of tone on medicinal cannabis.”

As recently as 2013, the International Narcotics Control Board had warned that medical cannabis initiatives could prove to be “backdoor legalization.” But in May 2018, the board held a meeting with civil society delegates “to discuss the medical and non-medical uses of cannabis.”

The shadow report sees the cannabis question as “one of the greatest disconnects between contemporary reality and the U.N.’s 2019 drug policy targets.” While UN. .drug control treaties place cannabis under the strictest of the official “schedules,” it remains “by far the world’s most widely used illegal drug.”

The report notes that “instead of persisting with efforts to ban cannabis markets, an increasing number of jurisdictions are choosing to provide for legal, regulated access to cannabis for adults for non-medical purposes.”

Especially named, of course, are Uruguay, Canada and the states in the U.S. that have actually legalized cannabis. Also, various European countries have followed the Netherlands into a more relaxed policy.

The Caribbean region is also making progress, where Jamaica already allows for cannabis use in religious ceremonies. St Vincent and the Grenadines is about to adopt a similar law. A recent report of the Caribbean Community (CARICOMRegional Commission on Marijuana recommends that member states move away from a prohibitionist regime that has proven to be ineffective as well as unjust, having “caused more harm than it sought to prevent.”

The shadow report finds that the U.N.’s internal politics are “fractured” around cannabis. Even as the International Narcotics Control Board urges a hardline approach, the U.N.’s World Health Organization is studying the medical applications of cannabis — and a potential challenge to its Schedule I status.

Even if a consensus is not reached on rescheduling or descheduling cannabis, U.N. member nations may invoke a “unilateral procedure” to opt out of treaty provisions in light of new evidence or circumstances — as Bolivia has now done with regard to coca. This procedure is provided for under Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Recommendations for 2019 International Drug Policy

The report closes by urging that, as the U.N. revisits the drug policy question next year, “member states should meaningfully reflect upon the impacts of drug control” on the United Nations’ own stated goals for the coming generation.

The text calls upon the U.N. to adopt practices that “reflect the realities of drug policies on the ground, both positive and negative, and discuss constructively the resulting tensions with the U.N. drug control treaties and any human rights concerns associated with drug control efforts.”

One of the lead contributors to the shadow report is former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who has emerged as an outspoken critic of the global prohibition regime. In her introduction, she writes that in spite of this regime, “consumption and illegal trafficking of drugs have reached record levels,”

But she concludes optimistically: “I am certain that this Civil Society Shadow Report will greatly contribute to the global drug control debates and ensure that the coming decade will be better embedded in the international community’s priorities of human rights, development, peace and security.”

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