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What happens at CND 67, the international forum where the future of drug policy is decided

The historic presence of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Colombia’s leading role and frustration at the slow progress towards a new global monitoring system. Analysis of the first day of the CND in Vienna.

Por: DejusticiaMarch 15, 2024

As they do every March, the member countries of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meet in plenary session in Vienna. For years, this diplomatic scenario has served to discuss and adopt measures related to the global drug control system: reviewing, classifying, limiting or expanding the production, use and marketing of psychoactive substances declared illicit.

The CND’s mandate allows it to define drug control policies, often through a punitive approach and the use of criminal and police prosecution, which violate human rights and disproportionately affect vulnerable populations. However, social organizations and some countries critical of this model have insisted that prohibitionist measures have led to international security taking precedence over human rights (especially the right to health) in the Commission’s discussions.

This strategy, which is part of the so-called ‘war on drugs’, has been described as a resounding failure: punitive measures have not prevented more than half a million people from dying from drug use, while, according to the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), such controls have been associated with extrajudicial executions, acts of torture, countless arbitrary arrests and mass incarceration.

After decades of struggle by some governments, academia and civil society to reform the international drug control regime, the 67th version of the CND is an opportunity to do so with the inclusion of new and necessary perspectives. On the one hand, the high-level segment for the mid-term review of the commitments of the 2019 political declaration is a stop along the way to review what is working, what is not, and how progress is going towards the agreed goals.

A Dejusticia team is in Vienna to follow up on the progress and setbacks resulting from the Commission. In the first of two days of high-level segments, government representatives from around the world (including U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Bolivian Vice President David Choquehuanca, Colombian Foreign Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk), this is what we found:

  1. More of the same from an already weak statement

In 2019, at another CND session, a ministerial declaration was issued outlining commitments for a decade and in which major calls from civil society were almost non-existent. In 2024, and despite there was great expectation for a possible change in the consensus of the Commission, the final document ended those aspirations: it merely reiterated the challenges of 2019 and committed to review them in 2019, but did not show a critical view on the harms caused by the system, nor an openness to strategies that respond to the realities of today: the need to decriminalize the personal use of drugs, the urgency of risk and harm reduction interventions and the prevalence of human rights in the implementation of drug policies.

Read the document issued by the CND in 2024

From Dejusticia, we did not find a single allusion to the concept of risk reduction in the document that the countries negotiated and ratified this Thursday, March 14, even though today, in the same scenario, the Director General of the WHO and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told the world that this type of measures protect the health of people who use drugs and are indispensable for a new international policy.

The document reaffirms the CND as the only body in the UN system dealing with drugs, although other agencies (such as the High Commissioner itself) have made an enormous effort to get involved and include human rights issues in this agenda. The document does not mention decriminalization either, but refers only briefly to “alternative measures to criminalization,” without making it explicit that no international obligation is imposed on states to criminalize use.

2. For the first time, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was present

In the United Nations system there is a sort of imaginary dividing line between Vienna and Geneva: in the former, drug-related issues are discussed, and in the latter, human rights issues. That is why this Thursday when the CND Secretariat opened a space for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, something broke in that line.

The presence of this official and his speech became a symbol of what is to come for the Commission and international drug control policy: rights are finally at the center of the debate and in their inescapable relationship with drug policy are the keys to finding solutions to the global crises that generate illegalized markets for peace, security and democracy.

“I believe we are all here because we have confirmed the failure of the war on drugs: the failure to save lives and the failure to protect the dignity and future of millions of users. Drugs destroy lives, but so do regressive policies,” said Türk, adding that it is key that international forums, such as the CND, discuss a change in the direction of drug policy.

3. Colombia ignited the flame of human rights

Colombia and its drug policy were the protagonists of the first day of the high-level segment. From his country, President Gustavo Petro sent a strong message to the CND in which he described the current international system as “anachronistic and indolent”, and said that, while it is true that countries should support the United Nations, it should not be a “blind, deaf and silent” United Nations.

For her part, Laura Gil, Colombia’s ambassador to the UN office in Vienna, mentioned that, behind the scenes, this government negotiated and managed to persuade a group of 60 countries to include human rights principles in the mid-term review of the 2019 declaration. However, as the CND operates by consensus and not by voting, the purpose was not achieved.

Gil sent strong statements that mobilized an audience generally dissatisfied with the results of the space: “The regime is trapped in a bubble with fossilized institutions. We talk about the flexibility of the conventions and we only see rigidity, we see that they intend to create a barrier between the UN in Vienna and Geneva. We talk about mainstreaming human rights, and we spend entire nights deciding whether we can include the concept of human rights in a document on drugs”.

From civil society we have called attention to the pending tasks of the Colombian government to make the speeches that its delegation brought to Vienna a reality: to advance with the plans for territorial transformation of coca-growing areas, to ensure alternative measures to incarceration for people who commit minor and non-violent drug offenses, to accelerate the implementation of drug use, among others.

What can be expected in the coming days?

The high-level segment ends this Friday, March 15, with government representatives from around the world, and will hold two rounds: one to review how progress has been made on the 2019 commitments and another to raise the challenges of the coming years.

High-level side events will also continue, including the one in the United States, which focuses on the threat of synthetic drugs and the crisis of overdose deaths in this country, a crisis that has led to the official acceptance, at last, of harm reduction models as part of health services for drug users.

Once the general debate is closed, this high-level segment will conclude with a work plan for the next five years and with the review agreed for 2029.

Next week, from Monday, March 18 to Friday, March 22, the regular session of the CND will take place, also in Vienna. During these days, governments will develop 11 side events, each of which will address the challenges set by the Commission in 2019.

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