INCB & Coca

A colonial attitude unworthy for a UN agency
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

coca-chewing-womanWhen the INCB Annual Report for 2007 – under embargo until March 5 – started to circulate about a month ago, I was in complete shock after reading the worst ever paragraphs on coca written in UN history for several decades. The position taken by the Board now can be characterized by no more talk about the need to solve 'long-standing ambiguities in the conventions', not a shred of sympathy anymore for traditional customs or rights of indigenous peoples, no trace of cultural sensitivity at all, an all-out attack against coca chewing, drinking of coca tea or any other uses of coca in its natural form in the Andean region and the northern parts of Argentina and Chile.

We were warned last year in their report already about this direction of INCB thinking, but still I am outraged by this year’s call to “the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to initiate action without delay with a view to eliminating uses of coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing” and that all countries “should establish as a criminal offence, when committed intentionally, the possession and purchase of coca leaf for personal consumption”.

Out of touch with reality

In what world do these people live in, I wonder. True, the 1961 Single Convention did oblige countries to abolish coca leaf chewing within 25 years. That period has long past and formally all countries who signed that – including Bolivia – are still legally bound by that article. Bolivia and Peru tried to correct that when negotiating the 1988 Convention, which stipulates that drug control measures “should take due account of traditional licit use, where there is historic evidence of such use”. But unfortunately the US at the same negotiations ensured that another article said that the 1988 convention “should not derogate from any obligations under the previous drug control treaties”. Since then, impasse and contradiction.

The INCB has pointed out this contradiction several times (most clearly in its 1994 supplement to their Annual Report) and requested the CND to bring clarity and give policy guidance. Why then do they now take a high-ground position of judge, jury and executioner and arrogantly instruct the world to go back to the 1961 coca abolition dogma, which was based on a colonial and racist ‘study’ published in 1950? I’ve tried to follow dynamics within the Board over the past decade, not an easy task because it operates under a cloud of secrecy totally out-of-line with any accepted UN standards about transparency and accountability. But still, it leaves me puzzled.

Dinosaur of zero tolerance

Is this the influence of Camilo Uribe Granje, the new Colombian INCB member, previously known for his attempts – paid by the US embassy in Bogota – to deny any harmful impacts of the chemical spraying campaign against coca fields? Or is it due to INCB President Emafo’s influence, a true dinosaur of zero tolerance who also maintains that needle exchange or harm reduction is against the UN drug control conventions, on a moment UNAIDS and WHO declare such interventions to be the only effective answer to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia and Eastern Europe?

Or is it an attempt by the Board to show to the US that they are still keeping a hard line on some issues to compensate for the softer line they take in this report on harm reduction and 'proportionality of criminal sanctions'? That could be a point, because there are several positive things to say about this year’s INCB report, positions that probably will not please the current Bush administration. However, even the US has stopped condemning traditional coca uses in the Andes and you can drink coca tea when visiting the US embassy in La Paz.

Disagreement within the INCB?

There must have been disagreement within the INCB on this issue, because not all the members are as ignorant and out-of-touch with reality to support such an extremist position. We may never know, because the Board’s policy is to not mention internal disagreements or minority positions. It is very worrying that the wording on coca in this year’s report apparently had a majority support within the Board and those members who agreed to it should feel ashamed, especially after the recent adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that acknowledges fully the right to the people concerned to continue to chew coca or drink coca tea.

Including the WHO has found that coca consumed in its natural form is beneficial. What is the INCB thinking to achieve with this retreat to the obsolete thinking of the 1961 Convention? It merely underlines the need to reform the way the Board is operating. If a majority of the Board does not come to its senses and corrects this mistake, they will only further dig their own grave and confirm their unworthiness to be a UN agency.