Report on the Regional NGO-Consultation meeting ”Beyond 2008”
for Western Europe, Budapest, Hungary, 24-25 Jan. 2008.
by Fredrick Polak, M.D., psychiatrist, member of the ENCOD steering committee
Read also: Report by Peter Sarosi, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union
This report is meant for ENCOD and for SDB, Stichting Drugsbeleid, the Netherlands Drug Policy Foundation, and for other interested people. But first of all I am going to mail this to my American and Canadian friends who will be attending the “Beyond 2008” Regional NGO-Consultation that will take place in Vancouver on 4 and 5 February 2008.
To find out what is going on at UNODC and the CND in the coming period, you should visit these websites:
Vienna NGO Committee, organizer of these meetings
IDPC, International Drug Policy Consortium.
IDPC prepared a number of very relevant reports for these meetings:
[Beyond 2008 Forum (7-9 July 2008):
As for the material that is being used at the meetings itself, a week before the meeting I received a 22-page report from Beyond 2008, named Introduction and Consultation Material.
The organization of the consultation was around three “Objectives”, of which the first two would be discussed on the morning and afternoon of day one and the third on the morning of day 2, and that was it.
Page 4: Objective 1: NGO achievement. We had to relate what we as NGO’s had done “in the field of drug control”.
Objective 2: Improved Collaborative Mechanisms.
Objective 3: High-Order Principles.
Reading this I was shocked and angry, until I came to page 17, Questions 1 – 5. Everything before that seemed useless and a loss of time. But here it suddenly became highly interesting and even revolutionary, seen in the context of the UN drugs bureau. I then became worried that it wouldn’t be possible at the meeting to spend enough time and effort at these last few pages
All of this had to be discussed and abstracted in one and a half day in total, and the only interesting part was on the last half-day.
Shortly after the start of the first session I raised my finger and said that I wanted to discuss the agenda. That was OK. I said that the first two objectives which comprised most of the written material were only interesting for bureaucrats and probably for the NGO-committee itself, because of course it is not easy to collect and represent the views of a large and disparate number of NGO’s. These first two objectives are obviously meant to improve the quality of the consultation process itself. But as to the content of the meeting, preparation for the CND-review in the period between CND 08 and 09, only the five questions under Objective Three are relevant. For that reason I proposed to move the discussion of Objective 3 forward on the agenda. This was not accepted. The proposed agenda was the same in the nine Regional Consultations taking place these months around the globe, and the organizers assured me that things had gone well in those places where the consultations had already taken place and that there would be enough time to discuss the issues that I was concerned about.
At the moment of writing this report, after completion of the whole meeting, I must say they were right, but it was not easy to work through the whole agenda, especially on the morning of the second day, when Objective 3 was discussed. More about my afterthoughts at the end of this report.
The discussions on the three objectives followed this scheme: a 20 minute introduction by one of the organizers, a 70 minute discussion in three groups of about 12 participants, and finally a plenary discussion of 50 min. to report back and wrap the item up. It must be said that this scheme was applied flexibly, so that there were no complaints from any of the participants about not having enough time to speak. On the other hand, the discussions on many of the topics remained rather superficial, which was not necessarily a deficiency because the point was to collect the input of the organizations, not to come to conclusions. It was pointed out to us from the beginning that this whole exercise was a preliminary to the global NGO Consultation meeting which will take place in July in Vienna.
I’ll give (a selection of) my impressions on the discussions about the three objectives, combining what was said in my subgroup with the reports from the other two groups.
Objective 1: “NGO achievements”. Many and very varied remarks were made about the situations, difficulties and achievements in the countries from which representatives were present. Funding was, of course, often named as minimal. Waiting lists for treatment. Drug users have restricted access to health care. The organization for a Drug-free Sweden accepts no funding from the government, whereas some of the other organizations are largely dependent on that kind of funds. Some NGOs said that their position enabled them to start projects that treatment organizations would not do. The difference between treatment and advocacy work was stressed, and the specific input of (problematic) drug users accentuated.
Objective 2: “Improved collaborative mechanisms”. In Portugal the government calls on selected NGOs with requests on specific topics, but not on those issues that are most important to these organizations. Per Johansson of Drug-free Sweden said that after initial resistance his group stands very strong now in public opinion. Louise Persson of the Swedish Drug User Association said that on the national level her organization is not heard, but in a number of regions they have good contacts. In many countries, NGOs are competing with each other for funding. Scottish NGOs prefer informal contacts. Very few have any contact with UNODC.
A discussion followed on the definition of NGO, and of inclusion or exclusion of organizations. The Vienna NGO Committee people had already informed us they had not yet refused an organization, but of course, there are limits to who they can admit.
In the plenary, totally contradictory points of view were brought up on this subject. Some people found that anyone who wants to speak out on the drug issue must be heard. Someone said that even the pharmaceutical industry should be included, if they wished. Some people only wanted to include non-profit organizations. Personally, I pleaded for the exclusion of organizations that have a financial interest in this issue (as pharmaceutical companies have) and I also suggested the exclusion of treatment institutions, on the ground that they have an interest in the prolongation of drug prohibition, as this increases their target group and their political importance. This found very little support. Someone even said that treatment institutions are in the best position to represent both the general population and the scientific world.
The organizers said this issue seems insolvable. Every rule or criterion that is chosen will create new difficulties for the admission of certain groups or organizations. So this matter was left to rest – which does not mean that it needn’t be resolved.
The question was raised how all these remarks and comments were to be relayed to CND. The organizers said this was certainly not going to be easy, because up to 300 NGOs are expected to come to the final global NGO Consultation meeting in Vienna in July, so the plan is to study the results of the series of meetings and make an honest effort to distill the important trends and opinions.
Objective 3: In his introduction, Mike Trace, member of the Vienna NGO Committee sketched the organization of UNODC, CND, and INCB and their position within the wider UN organization. UNODC is a relatively small bureau that has to work with much larger organizations such as WHO, UNAIDS, the Human Rights bureau, etc., but its functioning is often not consistent with or even contrary to the accepted principles of these other UN pillars, most importantly on human rights.
”A drug free world” was indeed the slogan in 98, but was not mentioned in the official publications. Thanasis Apostolou (Andreas Papandreou Foundation, Greece) said one of the official objectives is “elimination or significant reduction of”. Trace continued: the enthusiasm with which countries apply prohibition is much varied, even within countries, the so-called postcode lottery.
He gave the following important dates: 10 March 08: discussion of the “assessment” in CND. No decisions. The “counter-report” commissioned by the EU is expected to be published later, possibly two months later. In March 09 there will be a two-day political meeting and only after that meeting the decisions will be made about the policies for the following period. The “product” of the NGO consultation must consist of short, clear statements and “high-order principles” for the politicians.
The formulation of these “High-Order Principles”, the theme of the last session was delayed to the final plenary. We first devoted ourselves in the subgroups to the Conventions, and their intended and unintended consequences.
In my subgroup, the debate was heated. Only the drug-free Swede was positive about the conventions, and critical about the soft way they are implemented in other countries. I said that he believes that, what he sees as a satisfactory situation, is a consequence of the repressive Swedish policy, but that in the last 10 to 15 years a number of studies, and also the publications of EMCDDA, have shown that there is no causal link between the intensity of repression and the level of drug use and dependence. Politicians like to believe there is, but there simply is no proof of a causal link. The representative of the Swedish drug users said the situation in Sweden is worse than her compatriot wanted us to believe. Portugal is rather content with the changes in its drug policy which were made a few years ago, so that drug use is no longer a felony, and the overriding approach is medical. All the other representatives were negative about the drug conventions and the situation in their countries. Apostolou said the conventions are twenty years old and do not deliver what they are intended to do.
In the conference paper, the unintended consequences were mentioned as either positive or negative, but only negative ones were reported.
In the final plenary, Trace said that there was a disparity between the conventions and the actual situation in many countries. Whereas the conventions became stricter, many countries became more relaxed. This is one of the reasons why new objectives for international drug policy should be formulated, in the form of “High-Order Principles”. In the discussion, one recurring theme was whether Human Rights should be one of these principles or even the overriding one. There was much support for this, but it was argued that there is no officially recognized right to use drugs.
Peter Sarosi (Hungarian Civil Rights Union) said there is no consensus, but anyway it is a human rights issue, and if you want to restrict drug use, you must have strong arguments.
Grazia Zuffa (Fuoriluogo, Italy) said that using alcohol is not seen as a human right either, and that there should not be a different approach for drugs. I added that the prohibition of a selection of drugs without good reasons is discrimination of the users of those substances.
Artur Radosz (Polish DPF) proposed a new Harm Reduction convention, but most of the others prefer less conventions over more.
A number of suggestions were made for the Principles:
The Right to Health was accepted by all, and there was more or less support for:
Flexibility and pluralism,
Personal Freedom, coupled with protection of minors and vulnerable people,
Meaningful participation of NGOs in CND.
It remained controversial whether Right to Wellbeing should be included, or Quality of Life.
As to the drug conventions, there was consensus that on human rights they must at least be consistent with other UN organizations. And the obvious and huge negative consequences of drug prohibition must be acknowledged.
There should be greater flexibility in the conventions. As it is, only harsher sanctions are allowed than in the conventions, but countries should also be allowed to introduce more lenient approaches. Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt (UK) stressed that any new formulations must not further vilify drug users.
Willem Scholten (WHO) suggested this formulation:
1. The Right to Health is the overarching principle for controlling drugs and therefore drug control should strive for the optimal balance between availability of medicines for medical use and the prevention of harm in non-medical use.
2. WHO must be the leading agency in medical and scientific matters.
To conclude the meeting, Bob Keizer (independent expert from the Netherlands) pointed out the structural lack of evaluation or assessment in UNODC and in the member countries. Also he noted a lack of information on policy issues and developments in the members of NGOs. To the issue of human and social rights, he added that children must live in a safe environment.
The program was not ended, however.
On the afternoon of the second day, there was an informal meeting organized by IDPC, International Drug Policy Consortium “to update interested NGOs on IDPC’s advocacy plans around the UNGASS review process.”
Mike Trace chaired this meeting in his capacity of IDPC director. He gave a detailed overview of the situation. IDPC will release two reports in the coming weeks, one on human rights, and the other on INCB. He indicated that the content of these reports will be very interesting, even shocking. It is possible that a screen documentary will be finished in time on “why we spend so much money on such terrible objectives”. He predicted that France will be a growing problem in the EU under the presidency of Sarkozy. Slovenia, actual president of the EU, already asked French officials to help them write texts. Sarkozy’s plan is to bring the old hard line back in EU drug policy. Trace said this will probably be impossible in the half year period of the French presidency, because the EU has adopted clear positions in the last year and a half, during which the position of the EU on drug policy was quite stable. But Sarkozy will certainly try to change that. A new Berlusconi government will join Sarkozy in this (but it is unlikely that this government will be in place before this year’s CND.)
IDPC will organize meetings in the margin of the CND in March 08, around the IHRA conference in Barcelona in May, and in Vienna in July.
In the references of the Introduction and Consultation Material, you may be as surprised as I am about the many well-known critics of the international drug control system that are mentioned: from the authors of “The Gentlemen’s Club” to Martin Jelsma and Pien Metaal.
(So at least they know in Vienna this literature exists, I thought, still under the impression that this material had been written by Costa’s staff. Only later I understood that the text was written by the Vienna NGO-Committee itself, with peer review for a few of the more sensitive parts.)
This does not mean, however, that the criticisms contained in these texts were also apparent in the material for the meeting. I was amazed about the nature of the quotations. Most striking was this in the selected quotations of Martin Jelsma, of TNI, Transnational Institute. He is the (co-)author of a series of highly critical articles and reports on the activities and publications of UNODC and CND. The quotations that were selected for the “Beyond 2008” text however could have been taken from numerous totally uncontroversial publications. Nothing was included of the relevant criticisms that Jelsma made and published in the years since 1998. I find this puzzling, not to use stonger terms. At best it seems to say: we are aware that this author is an important scholar in the field, but we are not going to distribute his criticisms. If you really want to know his opinions, you’ll have to read the publications itself, these quotes are only meant to show that we know his work.
At first, I was too suspicious, because I identified the Vienna NGO Committee too much with UNODC. Even if it is true that some, or many NGOs have a vested interest in the existing situation, most of the people working in these organizations see quite clearly that the interests of drug users are systematically harmed by drug prohibition. That does not mean that they also see that prohibition is harmful to society as a whole, but my impression is that they honestly try to convey the views of the attending NGOs to the CND. This does not mean, of course, that every remark that I included in this report will also be in the final document.
My advice to the representatives of the American and Canadian NGOs at the Vancouver meeting starting on 4 Feb. is to be patient during the first day, during which very little of substance will be discussed. Of course you can openly say that this is a waste of time, and try to change the agenda, but I failed and you probably will also fail. So it seems better to understand that the real work must be done on the morning of the second day, and use the first day more to listen to the others, see who may be supportive for drug law reform and who not, and save your energy for the discussions on the third objective.Republish