Lauber: SDGs A Chance to “Recalibrate” Drugs Debate

A panel of experts in drug control policy examined the interactions between sustainable development and the world drug problem at an IPI panel, “Debating the Intersection between the Sustainable Development Agenda (SDGs) and United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) 2016” on November 16th, 2015.

The meeting, co-organized with the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum (CPPF), was held to prepare for UNGASS, which will take place in April 2016.

Jürg Lauber, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, opened the discussion by stating that the comprehensiveness of the Sustainable Development Agenda would require members to rethink their approach to drug policy.

“When you look at the agenda, we talk about a paradigm shift,” he said. “It really, really is. When you look at the ambition of the agenda, but also the universality, the approach, the reach, and we need to recalibrate the discussion we have on the world drug problem, or at least it gives us the opportunity to recalibrate the discussion.”

Ambassador Lauber listed six aspects of the development and drug policy agendas in need of improvement over the next fifteen years – peace, governance, human rights, public health, gender equality, and environmental impact.

The last UNGASS on the world’s drug control priorities was held in 1998. Since then, the session’s stated objective for the total elimination of drugs from the world has clearly not been achieved. The 2016 UNGASS, however, offers an opportunity for member states to shift their strategy from being entirely focused on eliminating volumes of drugs, to analyzing the impacts of drug control policies on people.

There are growing calls to take a broader view of the related health, human rights, and safety concerns related to drug control, Mr. Lauber said. He called for “a sincere analysis of what has worked, and what has not worked.”

UNGASS 2016 must consider “the full range of links between the world drug problem and sustainable development in areas affected by illicit drug cultivation, trafficking, or use, and be particularly candid of situations in which the side effect of the cure have been far worse than the disease itself,” he said.

Julia Buxton of Hungary’s School of Public Policy, Central European University, asked whether the SDGs most closely linked to drug policy, such as eradicating poverty and HIV, would be possible to achieve if member states continued with their present militarized counter-narcotics strategy. “Absolutely not,” she answered, “not so long as we have this astonishing contradiction in policy and coherence between the securitization of drugs and pressing development issues.”

Ms. Buxton criticized “alternative development” programs aimed at encouraging peasants to switch from growing illicit drugs-related crops. Alternative development programs have been central to UN drug control strategies, but she warned they have had a negative impact.

“Rather than being a solution to these rather catastrophic global security and development problems we have, this is, as I like to say, a sticking plaster on a gangrenous leg that requires amputation,” she said. “It is a wholly inadequate response to the scale of the problems that we face.”

Ms. Buxton quantified alternative development programs’ mixed record. Despite significant alternative development aid from the United Kingdom, Afghanistan’s Helmand province saw an increase in opium cultivation in the past two years—34% in 2012-13, and 23% in 2013-14. Of Britain’s failure with this program, Ms. Buxton said, “this record is a travesty of why alternative development cannot work, and it cannot work because it is part of a counter-narcotic strategy.”

Ms. Buxton summarized her critique of alternative development by highlighting why it is not a way to promote development. “It’s driven by security concerns, and not development concerns and it re-enforces structural and national inequalities,” she said. “For those reasons, besides the fact that China, Russia, and US can’t even agree on what constitutes development, there’s no consensus, there’s no agreement, and these projects do more harm than good.”

Tenu Avafia, Team Leader of the HIV, Health and Development Group at the UN Development Programme (UNDP), brought the perspective of the United Nations to the panel’s discussion. He reminded the audience that “many people incarcerated for drugs are indigenous and ethnic minorities.” Further, he said, children of those incarcerated in many countries may be locked up with their parents, or “left to fend for themselves on the street, or in the no less ideal setting of institutionalized or foster care.”

A central part of the SDGs are the 179 targets to be met. “We’re all familiar with the term, whether we like it or not, ‘what gets measured gets done,’” Mr. Avafia said. Traditional measures of the success of drug policies focused on statistics such as the number of drug-related arrests made or the volumes of drugs seized. UNDP reported this has been problematic, because such measures say little about “the impacts of drug policies on people’s lives,” he said.

Bearing this disproportionate influence that past measures have had on the most vulnerable, Mr. Avafia stated it is his hope that the UN will “join the growing number of actors who call for a rethink of metrics that measure the impact of drug policies on human rights, on human development, and on public health, and we support these calls.”

Summer Walker, Drug Policy Project Manager for the United Nations University think-tank, said that a complementary set of metrics specific to drug policy were needed in conjunction with the SDGs. The SDGs have catalyzed a new conversation about indicators, and UNGASS can build upon that energy. This is why UNU’s report recommends, “that member states use UNGASS to measure the human development impacts of drug policies and drugs.”

Developing this particular set of targets and measures for drug policy, she said, “would help the drug policy/development action plan better align with both the SDGs and human development more broadly.”

Adam Lupel, IPI Director of Research and Publications, moderated the conversation.

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