Only days after UNODC Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa, used his opening speech at the 51st session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs to raise the issue of human rights and call for an end to the death penalty for drug offences, a coalition of death penalty countries banded together to seek to block a ground-breaking human rights resolution.
The resolution - entitled “Proper integration of the United Nations human rights system with international drug control policy”- was introduced by Uruguay with the co-sponsorship of Bolivia, Argentina and Switzerland. The first resolution of its kind at CND, it recognised the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (an event being celebrated throughout the UN system during 2008) and affirmed "that international drug control activities must be conducted in conformity with international human rights law". The resolution requested UNODC "to work closely towards those ends with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and...the Human Rights Council."
On Thursday 13 March, this draft resolution was taken to the "Committee of the Whole" at CND, where the wording of draft resolutions is debated, amended and (hopefully) agreed by consensus before being brought back to the full CND plenary session for approval. It was here that a small coalition of states sought to block, or at least undermine, the resolution.
Leading the charge was China, which stated that “Discussion of political issues such as human rights are inappropriate at CND”. China questioned whether it was within the mandate of CND to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, and stated that “It is not appropriate to address human rights within the mission of CND, and it is not appropriate to address this resolution in this session.”
Joining China in opposing even consideration of the resolution were Japan, Nigeria, Iran and Thailand. Cuba ensured that a specific statement against the death penalty for drug offences was removed from the draft before it even reached committee debate.
Speaking in full support of the resolution were Uruguay, the UK, Italy, Bolivia, Argentina, Romania, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Spain, Slovenia, Ireland and Peru.
The United States, although stating that “We are all very passionately committed to human rights”, did its best to water down the wording of the resolution as much as possible. This was a similar approach to that taken by Egypt, which while not speaking directly in opposition to the resolution introduced numerous procedural and wording changes intended to dilute its human rights focus. Canada expressed support for the resolution, although later joined the US in blocking reference within it to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The audience observing the debate was treated to some often unbelievable statements from delegates officially representing their governments at a high level UN meeting.
China, for example, stated that "It is ridiculous to require us [meaning the CND] to work in accordance with human rights law."
Nigeria told the delegations that "We should not be carried away by sentiment” in supporting the resolution, and asked "What do we mean by the United Nations human rights system?”
Not to be outdone in the "Who knows least about the UN system" contest, Japan asked what the term "international drug control" meant in the resolution, then questioned whether the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is international law. (It is, and for the information of our distinguished Japanese colleagues they can find out more about it on the International Law section of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights website.)
Thailand worried that discussion of human rights was the job of the UN in Geneva (where the human rights offices are located) rather than Vienna (where CND meets). The Thai delegation stated that “If we bring in the issue of human rights within CND, it will disrupt the tradition of consensus" decision-making within the Commission.
On the second point at least Harm Reduction International couldn't agree more, which is why our statement before the CND plenary on Tuesday called for an end to consensus, and the use of majority voting, on human rights issues. This would end the type of ridiculous scenario witnessed on Thursday when a small handful of countries were allowed to block a resolution that would have easily passed if voted on.
On the other side, the UK delegation played a leading role in defending the resolution, pointing out that the primacy of human rights over drug control within international law was "clear and unambiguous". They stated that as a functional commission of the Economic and Social Council of the UN, human rights is squarely within CND's mandate. The UK also clarified for the benefit of the Japanese delegation that not only is the Universal Declaration international law, it "verges on customary law".
The Netherlands delegation noted that the issue of human rights was “Important enough for Executive Director Costa to bring it up in his opening, so I see no reason why we should not discuss it here.” In reply to statements from some of the resolution's opponents who claimed not to know what the term human rights meant, the delegate stated that “Human rights are very well defined, so I don’t see why people would ask what are human rights.”
Switzerland, one of the resolution's co-sponsors, argued that “Human rights are not just something we defend in Geneva or a goal we seek to attain. They are a profound belief at the heart of the UN system.”
Argentina, another co-sponsor, stated that one of the main aims of the international community is the promotion of Universal Declaration, which it described as "one of the great achievements of the international community". They pointed out that drug control is a very broad field that touches on many areas of human rights protections, including the right to health and the right to life.
Bolivia argued that the resolution was important so that "fundamental human rights are not lost sight of in the fight against drugs".
The resolution, with new wording based upon this debate, is due to come back to the Committee of the Whole on Friday. The HR2 blog will be there and will keep you posted.
Thanks to Steve Rolles of Transform Drug Policy Foundation for the photo of the CND Committee of the Whole.