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Articles - International & national drug policy
Written by Ken Bluestone   
Thursday, 09 October 1997 00:00


The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs:

New Words, Old Actions?


Ken Bluestone, CIIR

(on behalf of ENCOD)

October 1997



Between 8-10 June 1998 the United Nations General Assembly in New York will hold a Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) which will attempt to address the problem of drugs globally. It will be a high-level political event which will involve government leaders from around the world, will raise the profile of the issue considerably and is likely to set the agenda for drugs control for the next ten years.

Official sources in governments and agencies working on drugs issues recognise that current drugs-control policies have been unsuccessful in stemming the supply and consumption of drugs. Even so, certain parties have blocked attempts to critically assess these policies and the impacts they are having on the people of the South and North alike. The UNGASS could become the forum in the international community in which such a process is initiated.

There is a very real danger, however, that this unique opportunity may be missed and that little substantive progress towards finding more effective means for combatting drugs problems will be made. NGOs and other groups could make an important contribution to this event and help to ensure that the design of just and effective international drugs-control policies are pursued.

This briefing paper gives an overview of the history and process of the Special Session, highlights some of the issues to be covered, and offers some recommendations on how NGOs and other groups could contribute their input to this event.

Why an UNGASS on Drugs?

The original impetus for this global meeting came from the Mexican government which in 1993 proposed a United Nations (UN) summit on the drugs issue like those held in Rio (environmental issues), Copenhagen (social issues) and Beijing (gender issues). The idea was to engage in a world-wide reflection on the efficiency and viability of anti-drugs strategies over the past decade and look for ways of improving them. After much deliberation, the initial proposal was pared down to its present form as a Special Session of the UN General Assembly (due to take place 10 years after the agreement of the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances).

In November 1996, the UN General Assembly formally decided to convene the Special Session stating that it should be devoted to assessing the existing situation within the framework of a comprehensive and balanced approach that includes all aspects of the problem, with a view to strengthening international cooperation to address the problem of illicit drugs, and within the framework of the UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 and other relevant conventions and international instruments. The following objectives were put forward:

a) To promote the adherence to, and full implementation by all States of the 1988 Convention [against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances], the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971;

b) To adopt measures to increase international cooperation to contribute to the application of the law;

c) To adopt measures to avoid the diversion of chemicals used in illicit drugs production, and to strengthen control of the production of and traffic in stimulants and their precursors;

d) To adopt and promote drug abuse control programmes and policies and other measures, including those at the international level, to reduce the illicit demand for drugs;

e) To adopt measures to prevent and sanction (sic) money laundering, in order to implement the 1988 Convention;

f) To encourage international cooperation to develop programmes of eradication of illicit crops and to promote alternative development programmes;

g) To adopt measures to strengthen coordination within the UN system in the fight against drugs trafficking and related organised crime, against terrorist groups engaged in drugs trafficking and against illicit arms trade.

What’s on the UNGASS agenda?

It is clear from the Special Session’s stated objectives, that it will not, as was originally hoped, produce an overall evaluation of the efficiency and viability of present anti-drugs strategies. Instead, the stage is set for a validation of existing policies with little room for substantive change.

It is important that we be realistic in our expectations of the Special Session. It will be a political event attended by world leaders who are unlikely to be specialists in the field of drugs. Both the statements and the decisions they make will probably be motivated by political concerns rather than the necessity for engaging in a critical revision of current policies. Even so, these statements and decisions could affect the future direction of efforts to combat drugs demand and supply.


The UNGASS will take a number of actions, some of which are described below:

1) A Political Declaration (to be approved during the Special Session) which could become the basis for a ‘Global Action Plan to Combat Drugs’ for the decade starting in the year 2000;

2) A document outlining Guiding Principles on Demand Reduction (a draft declaration of which has already been circulated);

3) A variety of measures will be proposed under the following themes:

i) measures against the production, trafficking and abuse of amphetamine-type stimulants;

ii) control of chemical precursors;

iii) measures to promote international judicial cooperation;

iv) measures against money laundering;

v) crop eradication and alternative development;

4) Following common UN practice, a ‘general debate’ will take place during the Special Session;

5) The possibility also exists that another subject could be added to the agenda before the preparations are over.

Only the general debate is likely to provide an opportunity for the introduction of new ideas. Given this situation, national delegations will play a crucial role in raising those issues which may have been excluded from other discussions in the UNGASS. As there can be no fixed agenda attached to this debate, it is essential that delegates be made aware of the issues and their impact on people in the North and the South.

Global debate, local consequences

Despite its limitations, the Special Session is an important opportunity to address some of the underlying issues which are affecting current attempts to combat drugs abuse and drugs trafficking both in domestic markets and internationally. The globalization of the world-economy has greatly facilitated the traffic of illegal drugs and the displacement of production making it even more difficult to reduce supply. Trade liberalisation measures, in some cases, have also been found to increase pressure on peasant farmers to produce drugs-linked crops due to the lack of viable licit economic opportunities. In general, current policy has resulted in the marginalisation of people who produce drugs-linked crops and consume drugs through the use of repressive tactics which often exacerbate the situation. These issues are global in scope, but have an impact on local communities. In this respect, the significance of the UNGASS should not be underestimated.

The Guiding Principles of Demand Reduction, for example, will provide a general blueprint for nations that have not yet developed their own demand-reduction strategies. Indications are that this will be a document which will reflect more conservative opinions of how to address the problems of drugs abuse and little space, if any, will be given for including the results of more innovative methods such as harm-reduction. Given the mixed results of current policy, it may be a poor model for future action.

In this respect, the role of the UN Conventions, as the framework in which international and domestic drugs-control policies are implemented, is very significant. One concern is that the current interpretation of these conventions may be impeding the introduction of innovative policies which could lead to effective solutions at the local level in Europe and in developing countries.

Another worrying consequence of present policy is its collateral negative effect on poor people in drugs-producing countries. In addition to the violence, corruption and crime that drugs trafficking generates, some forms of drugs-control policies can inhibit social and economic development, destabilise democracy, encourage the abuse of civil and human rights and damage the environment.

People in developing countries are further being affected by current alternative options for reducing drugs-linked crop production. The top-down approach prevalent in planning alternative development programmes typically excludes the participation of local communities at the most crucial moment of the process, sometimes resulting in the selection of economic activities which are inappropriate for the local context. There is also the need for a clearer understanding of how these programmes affect women and men so that the situation of women in these communities is not worsened as a result.

Some governments and agencies would claim that if their drugs control policies do not work properly, it is because their methods are sound but are not being implemented properly. The US policy of Certification is an example of this philosophy. What is striking is the refusal to question the methods being employed and the feeling that, in spite of the unconvincing performance of current efforts to deal with the drugs problem, these policies and strategies should not be changed because it cannot be known for certain that things would be better without them.

This UNGASS should be used as an opportunity to re-evaluate the UN Conventions and current strategies for dealing with the drugs problem, remembering that they are not perfect policies set in stone. They are political documents and policies which should reflect the changing reality and this can only come about through critical analysis and the political will, locally and globally, to recognise that current approaches are not sufficiently capable of tackling the problem.

Official preparations for the event

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, based in Vienna, is organising the Special Session, and Portugal was chosen to hold the Commission’s presidency during the preparatory process. A series of three inter-sessional meetings, PrepComs (Preparatory Commissions), have been scheduled in Vienna to discuss key issues and proposals prior to the Special Session:


7-9 July 1997 a) Measures to counter illicit manufacture of, trafficking in and abuse of stimulants; and

b) Measures to enhance the control and monitoring of precursors frequently used in the manufacture of illicit drugs.

7-9 October 1997 a) Measures to promote judicial cooperation; and

b) Measures to counter money laundering.

5 December 1997 a) Examine eradication of illicit crops and alternative development; and b) Identify elements for possible inclusion in a statement reaffirming the political commitment of governments to international drugs control.

In addition, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs was to hold two planning sessions for the event: one took place 26-27 March 1997 to define the agenda items for the Special Session; and the second will take place from 27 February to 5 March 1998 to decide the final details for the event (this date also marks the deadline for submitting documents to be included in the Special Session in June).

Where do NGOs fit in?

NGOs and other groups have an extremely important role in helping to prepare for the UNGASS. The original goal of re-evaluating current policy in the Special Session and finding innovative alternatives for the future probably will not be realised. Within this limitation, NGOs still will be pivotal in contributing valuable research and analysis likely to be excluded from the official dialogue. Our presence therefore should re-introduce some of the dynamism lost from the original proposal.


Making direct contributions to the UNGASS

Only those NGOs with Consultative Status to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) can make direct input into the preparations for the UNGASS. They can contribute to this process in two ways:

1) Participating in the PrepComs and the Preparatory Sessions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. ECOSOC-accredited NGOs can contribute to the preparations by discussing relevant issues directly with national delegates and can formally submit documents to the Commission which will be included in the material for official consideration.

2) Participating in the UNGASS in June. It is unclear yet whether any direct contribution on the part of NGOs will be allowed in the Special Session. Given that NGO participation in UN General Assembly Special Sessions is not unprecedented, there may be an opportunity available to make an impact. The real contribution of NGOs and other groups, however, will come outside the event as they raise awareness of the issues being discussed, both to the political delegations and to the general public.


Action for all

While direct input into the process is somewhat limited, there is wide scope for NGOs - even those without ECOSOC consultative status - and other groups to make a contribution. What follow are a few suggestions for making a non-governmental voice heard at UNGASS.

Link-up with other NGOs. The European NGO Council on Drugs and Development (ENCOD) is organising an international coalition of NGOs interested in the developmental implications of international drugs-control policies. The goal of this coalition is to develop a concerted international NGO response to the issues and policies affecting women and men in developing countries that produce drugs. There may be other organisations interested in working together on issues related to demand reduction at the community, national and European level as well. In this respect, it is important to think of links we may have with the South. The UNGASS is an international event and we should make every effort to ensure that all voices are heard.

Contact your national delegates. The UNGASS is essentially a political event attended by national delegations from UN member states. In the United Kingdom, the delegate to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs which is preparing the UNGASS is appointed by the Home Office. Both the opinions the delegates express and the stances they take will reflect, to some extent, how well informed they are about the issues and the wishes of the electorate. NGOs and other groups, both as constituents and information providers, can put forward a particular perspective which may not be accessible to the delegates otherwise.

Educate your constituency. The importance of the UNGASS lies in the fact that the topics it will discuss affect everyone. Educating the general public about the UNGASS is essential for creating the political will necessary to tackle the difficult questions which have to be raised.

Work with the media. Make sure the UNGASS and the issues which need to be raised get the profile they deserve before the event. The current media debate on decriminalisation in the United Kingdom, for example, could have direct relevance for the British government’s position in the Special Session. It is important to make sure that journalists are aware of the UNGASS and are kept well informed.

Attend the Special Session in June. While all ‘official’ input into the UNGASS will be finished at the second session of the Commission of Narcotic Drugs in March 1998, there will be a lot of activity surrounding the Special Session in New York. Opportunities will be available for those with ECOSOC accreditation to distribute documents directly to other attendees and there will be a variety of fringe events to which delegates and politicians can be invited.

Relevant Documents

A/51/436, 30 September 1996, General Assembly 51st session, International Drug Control, Implementation of the Global Programme of Action adopted by the General Assembly at its seventeenth special session, Report of the Secretary-General.

A/51/469, 9 October 1996, General Assembly 51st session, Preparations for and possible outcome of a special session of the General Assembly on international drug control, Report of the Secretary-General.

A/51/611, 15 November 1996, General Assembly 51st session, Report of the Third Committee; International Drug Control, section IV.

E/CN.7/1997/PC.1, 26 February 1997, Commission on Narcotic Drugs acting as Preparatory Body for the Special Session of the General Assembly (etc.), Adoption of the Agenda and Other Organizational Matters.

E/CN.7/1997/PC.2, 26 February 1997, Commission on Narcotic Drugs acting as Preparatory Body for the Special Session of the General Assembly (etc.), Procedural issues to be considered in preparations for the special session of the General Assembly, Report of the Executive Director.

E/CN.7/1997/PC.3, 26 February 1997, Commission on Narcotic Drugs acting as Preparatory Body for the Special Session of the General Assembly (etc.), Substantive issues to be considered by the General Assembly at its special session, Report of the Executive Director.

E/CN.7/1997/PC/CRP.1, 25 March 1997, Commission on Narcotic Drugs acting as Preparatory Body for the Special Session of the General Assembly (etc.), Draft declaration on money laundering.

E/CN.7/1997/PC/CRP.2, 25 March 1997, Commission on Narcotic Drugs acting as Preparatory Body for the Special Session of the General Assembly (etc.) , Draft declaration on control of chemical precursors.

E/CN.7/1997/PC/CRP.4, 11 February 1997, Commission on Narcotic Drugs 40th session, Vienna 18-27 March 1997, Illicit Demand for Drugs, Report of the working group with expertise in demand reduction on the development of a draft declaration on the guiding principles of demand reduction, held at Vienna from 10 to 13 December 1996.

NAR/CL.3/1997, Annex I, Draft Declaration on the Guiding Principles of Drug Demand Reduction.

Political Declaration and Global Programme of Action, UN Decade Against Drug Abuse 1991-2000; Adopted by the General Assembly at its 17th special session, devoted to the question of international cooperation against illicit production, supply, demand, trafficking and distribution of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.

Proposal for NGO Activities in Support of the UN Special Session Devoted to the Combat Against the Illicit Production, Sale, Demand, Traffic and Distribution of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and Related Activities; Vienna NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs and New York NGO Committee on Narcotics and Substance Abuse, Co-Chairs of the joint Management Committee: Ms Rosalind Harris (NY) and Ms Eva Tongue (Vienna).

Report of the First Ad Hoc NGO Forum in Preparation for the 1998 UN General Assembly’s Special Session, Vienna, March 20th 1997 (contains a list of participants and of members of the Vienna Committee).

Society for Threatened Peoples, Intervencion de Omayra Morales Ramirez en el 40 periodo de sesiones de la Comision de Estupefacientes del Consejo Economico y Social de la ONU.

Society for Threatened Peoples, Intervencion de Tomas Montoya (27 March 1997).

World Drug Report, United Nations International Drug Control Programme, Oxford University Press, 1997.




Our valuable member Ken Bluestone has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.