Ask any drug reformed-minded civil society organization at the UN and they will tell you the same thing. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs is draining. It’s draining for several reasons. It can be emotionally draining to watch the slow churning of the bureaucratic machine as it continues to move while your friends and colleagues continue to be incarcerated and killed by its policy. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs can make you feel as if there is no hope; as member states with flagrant human rights violations accuse more progressive member states of treaty violations for looser drug laws. It’s hard to follow without an intimate knowledge of the UN. Resolutions are debated both in public and in closed door meetings, following the language in the Committee of the Whole (more affectionately known as the CoW) is like staring at 3 teachers with different areas of expertise (none of which are in your field btw) editing your work with a slew of track changes, brackets, and text crossed out, all intermingled together.
Yet there are moments of hope, glimmers and opportunities for new collaborations. Drug policy solidarity is built in the face of what sociologist Max Weber referred to as “the iron cage”: a totalizing system of bureaucracy and hyper-rationalization. Only in the world of drug policy could a country that violates human rights and engages in extrajudicial killings be given an open platform to talk about how it has made communities “drug free”. People walked out during the High-Level Ministerial Segment as a sign that they do not recognize the Venezuelan government. Yet, as far as I am aware no one seemed to care all that much when a country being pursued by the International Criminal Court for human rights abuses speaks of its “total commitment to demolish the drug scourge.”
In the face of this, however, there are resistances, small progressive movements moving like multi-coloured morning glory vines climbing along the cage. The first of the major events was a protest in front of the Philippines booth. People lay down in front of the booth in protest of the whitewashing of massive violence that the Philippines booth represents. As far as I know there have not been any wide-reaching consequences to people involved although it did raise tensions with security that will have to be addressed in the coming months. As member states continue to advocate for the importance of civil society inclusion, we’ll have to ask ourselves, what is meaningful civil society inclusion? Is it simply that civil society can sit, watch and potentially make minor changes to resolutions?
If member states value civil society, at some point the rules will have to change to make space for strategies for engaging member states in the ways that civil society knows best. While I recognize that there is a diverse set of civil society members at CND, I do not believe that even the anti-drug reform civil society organizations believe there is anything civil, about allowing member states to flaunt their human rights violations. If the UN held that all protest was inappropriate then surely member states should have had their passes removed when member states walked out of the representative of Venezuela’s speech. To be clear, I’m not weighing in on the il/legitimacy of the Maduro government. But walking out is a protest!
The other big event that I’d like to highlight is the creation and dissemination of the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy, which was released at CND this year. Speakers at this event pointed out the importance of framing drug policy in relation to human rights. A surprisingly novel concept at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, this document should provide civil society organizations with some tools to push receptive governments to begin considering drug use in relation to human rights. The side event for the release of this document is perhaps one of the few times at the UN I have ever felt hope. With supreme court judges, people who use drugs, human rights advocates from Geneva and delegates from member states all on the same panel, it was hard to not feel as if there may be a possibility for hope.
What fills me with hope more than anything else, however, is how youth engagement has swelled over the last year. We had representation from every continent, and our two side events were well attended despite lacking a government co-sponsor. At our side event (Ask 2: shift drug policies towards public health and human rights-based approaches) were delegates from New Zealand, Canada, Serbia, and the United Kingdom. Our colleague from EPSD, Marisa Morales, gave an impassioned speech from the floor of the UN in Spanish this year, highlighting the importance of youth involvement.
This year we experimented with more collaborative forms of online engagement including splitting up the work of writing blog posts, and had a very successful Paradigma meeting. Paradigma is still in the process of deciding what its mission and strategy will be, but we have now set up some practical goals for expanding our collective efforts over the next year so that CND can include an even more diverse group of youth. While there is a lot more to be worked out over the coming year, a lot of the groundwork has been put into place.
Even though the United Nations can often steal your energy away, it’s iron cage often feeling unescapable, I feel recharged by my colleagues – really my friends – who put so much effort and commitment into trying to change the world. The youth movement is always a reminder that when we are included within the activism, organizing, and cultivation of another world, that a different world can actually begin to feel like a possibility.
Written by: Alex Betsos