Hard News by Russell Brown


The place where things happen strangely

Imagine if New Zealand's social, public health and judicial policy was subject to a veto from Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. If those nations were in a position to dictate what our elected government could do or not do, how it could act on evidence, how it should regard the human rights of its citizens. Scary, huh? That's basically what's happening at UNGASS 2016, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs.

A month ago, in Vienna at the meeting of the quaintly-named Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the hardline countries basically outlasted the others to haul the UN consensus process their way. The result was the UNGASS 2016 "outcome document",  which is set to be adopted during the first couple of hours of the meeting tomorrow. This turgid document does make some new concessions to the idea of drugs as a health issue, but absent are both the concept of harm reduction (the subject of a perennial pissing contest at these events) and any condemnation of of the death penalty for drug offences.

After a fairly comical experience collecting my UN media pass (see my tweets), I arrived in time for an UNGASS side event called Getting Better Results: Aligning Drug Policy Objectives Within the Wider UN System, which was chaired genially and effectively by Peter Dunne. It was a reality check.

The nub of the discussion was the search for more meaningful metrics in assessing the actual outcomes of drug policy – and in particular whether such policy serves the objectives of the UN family, the Sustainable Development Goals or SGDs. Almost every speaker wrote off the chance of meaningful change at UNGASS – a meeting originally brought forward at the request of Latin American countries who sought meaningful change to global drug control policies.

Nazlee Maghsoudi, Knowledge Translation Manager at the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, lamented a "critical missed opportunity" and declared that "the drug policy status quo will act as a barrier to attainment of the SGDs". Mike Trace, chair of the International Drug Policy Consortium, recalled being at UNGASS 1998 and signing off the fateful slogan ("and it was a slogan") about a "drug-free world". The outcome document in 2016 is full of talk about this drug-free world, 18 years on. Dunne diplomatically observed the "balance between traditional and newer approaches to drug policy".

Towards the end of the session we saw something I'm told will be a feature of the discussions: the Russian Derailment. A Russian delegate demanded that Maghsoudi tell him "one concrete example" of an indicator that could be used to measure. She pointed out the ICSDP had given an open letter listing many such indictators. He responded by essentially telling her he could read, she was a silly little girl and he wanted her to personally "just tell me one".

Okay, she said: "Counting overdose deaths."

The next side meeting I went to focused on the death penalty. The panelists noted that 160 countries have either abolished the death penalty or not longer use it in practice. But among the small number of countries who still practice capital punishment – principally Iran, Pakistan and Saudia Arabia – its use is increasing sharply. Canadian Rick Lines, the impressive executive director of Harm Reduction International, spoke of the half-dozen countries who execute their people for drug offences as "a very extreme fringe of the international community".

But it's a fringe whose ends are being quite well served by UN process. Next door to the room I'd been in, the Civil Society Forum was taking place in a room far too small for all those who wanted to participate. It was hot and it stank and Ann Fordham, chair of umbrella group the International Drug Policy Consortium, denounced civil society's treatment as "unacceptable" on Twitter.

The third side event I attended was, again, about aligning drug policy with the UN's own stated goals. Remarkably, represtatives of the Justice ministries of Thailand and Jamaica expressed horror about the outcomes of their own drug laws. The Jamaican, Kathy-Ann Brown, who  used the words "spliff" and "ganja" liberally in her presentation, was particularly impressive. I'll try and interview her for Media Take. (There was another Russian Derailer during the Q&A, although this one made a little more sense.)

But all of this is not to say that the reformers have lost hope for the ideas of human rights and evidence-based policy. At least half of them looked forward to 2019 – when the review of UNGASS 2016 is scheduled  – as the time for progress. That has become what 2016 is really about.

This week, Peter Dunne has been invited to dine with George Soros, Richard Branson and Nick Clegg at Soros' New York pad. They're all about 2019 and they're looking to win political hearts and minds. Dunne himself will give a speech to the General Assembly that – as I've been trying to tell people for a while now – places him firmly in the reform camp.

If even the small hopes of the reform community have been dashed this year – people had hoped that the words "harm" and "reduction" might finally appear together – what's now happening is actually pretty interesting. It could get very interesting, depending on what Barack Obama says when he rolls up later this week.

But tomorrow morning, UNGASS proper begins, UN process will happen and the lame outcome document will be adopted before anyone (including the New Zealand speakers) gets a chance to debate it.

It's a strange place, the United Nations, but a fascinating one. My media accreditation allows me a fair degree of freedom. This morning, I watched the Security Council perform a set-piece on on the terrible situations in the Middle East: the Israeli and Palestinian delegations both walked out in what seemed like some grim act of choreography. Later, I stood a few feet away from former British PM Gordon Brown as he continued discussion on his call for an international court to punish states which enslave and otherwise abuse children.

Things do happen here. But they often happen strangely.

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