Written by Morgana Daniele

While the Philippines proceed with extrajudicial killings of people who use drugs, youth activists continue to protest against these atrocities. We, the youth organizations, remonstrate by lying on the floor of the Rotunda – the UN exhibition space – where this year, the Philippines occupy a space where they display posters promoting their brutal and violent approach to the War on Drugs. Welcome to the 2019 Commission on Narcotic Drugs Ministerial Segment.

The UN is a symbol of humanity’s progress, where learning to solve problems and opinion differences can be achieved without waging war. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs is an event which embodies this progress, where the costs of this evolution can be felt almost physically. The costs are represented by President Duterte’s posters in the headquarters of the UN, the very institution which has expressed its “deep concern” over the genocide of people who use drugs in the Philippines. Differences in opinion are illustrated by the different policies and views on drugs by countries such as the Philippines and Canada. The stark differences between the approaches of these two countries while they still maintain their attempts to achieve a consensus gives an insight into how slow the progress tends to be at the UN. That is before even considering the agendas of the many other countries attempting to influence the drug policy control system.

The second and final day of the Ministerial Segment has concluded. So, what has changed after the 193 delegates have delivered their speeches and attended numerous round tables and side events? To evaluate the level of progress would require analysis of all the speeches of delegates over a span of at least a decade. This analysis is beyond the scope of this text. However, we can share some observations.

All countries use buzz words in their speeches. For example, some phrases used by almost all countries to define their approach included “evidence-based”, “effective” and “health-centred”. Whereas their outcomes and results were commonly referred to as “measured” and “evaluated”. Taking off the diplomatic mask, two opposing approaches can be identified. Firstly, the fear of cracks appearing in the consolidated (but outdated) approach. Secondly, securing the right to individualism (whether in direction of brutality or liberalism).

The position of Russia and Singapore demonstrate the fear countries have of cracks appearing in the approach. The speeches of these countries were full of words representing the idealistic view of a drug-free world (“what world do we want? One where people die of drug overdose? Or one free of drugs, where we all thrive?”), as well as focusing on war (“fight”, “win”, “defeat”, “war on drugs”, “war on narcotic evil/tyranny”, “getting rid of this plague”), demonization of drugs (“narcotic hell”, “evil”, “tyranny”, “drugs destroy lives”, “prevention saves from pain”), and control (“implement tough laws”, “keep drugs away”, “it is now a crime in Singapore to allow young people to use”, “it is now a crime to introduce a trafficker to another person”). These countries are clearly in favour of outdated conventions (“conventions must stay as engraved in stone”, “multilateralism is necessary”, “problems cannot be solved unilaterally”, “established consensus”, “we must not waver or lose time renegotiating”, “act within conventions”, “collectively”).

The approach of Vietnam and Bolivia demonstrates the shift in focus to the sovereignty of countries policies. The language that was used included “non-interference”, “sovereignty”, “policies must correspond to the domestic circumstances”, “the drug laws were imposed by the U.S.”, “we decided to develop our own model” and “true, dignified, sovereign manner of drug policy”. However, the approaches that underpin the desire for sovereignty can vary considerably, and this sovereignty is not always a positive thing. While Bolivia comes to CND annually to present their success achieved through coca leaf regulation, which was implemented through a temporary breakaway from international treaties, Vietnam refers to “drug-free Asia”, “harm reduction through law enforcement” and “drug-free region”. The latter position becomes problematic when followed by language such as “tough laws”, “crime”, “abusers” and “rehab-strengthening with implementation of a post-release support and supervision”, used by other Asian countries.

Considering the approaches outlined above, noticeable regional differences remain: i) South America rejects the devastating policies of war on drugs; ii) Asia keeps following the control and violence path, iii) many Western countries talk about a health-centred approach; and iv) Africa seems to be at the crossroads between the two approaches.

Taken together, there were many positives from the 2019 CND Ministerial Segment, which include: i) Civil Society firmly maintaining their position as an equal partner by giving an opening speech and participating in multiple side events; Youth RISE International Coordinator presenting at the side event organised by the Norwegian government; and iii) the director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) speaking in the panel launching UNAIDS international guidelines on human rights and drug policy. These positives illustrate how activists continue to fly the flags high. Let’s hope that humanity remains determined to progress.