A Regretful Spirit

The INCB ‘no mercy’ crusade against Bolivia
Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The terms used in the preface to the 2011 INCB annual report leave no doubt as to the illness afflicting this UN body: a (deep) regret [1] is running through its old veins. Yet again, its poison is directed at Bolivia, that small country which dares to challenge and stretch what is allegedly firm and static, and all in the name of an old indigenous habit. This saga must come to a close sometime soon, both parties must have thought, but as yet no happy ending is in sight.

For years, Bolivia has announced its intention to “repair the historical error of including the coca leaf in the conventions”. One of the established procedures to pursue this is starting a – long – procedure through the World Health Organisation requesting the removal of the coca leaf from the lists of controlled substances of the 1961 Single Convention. Instead, Bolivia requested an amendment to the Treaty which would remove the obligation of member states to prohibit coca leaf chewing. Instead of being received with the consideration due, this was interpreted by some governments as a declaration of war against the Treaty. A “Friends of the Convention” meeting was organized in Vienna to persuade member states not to support Bolivia’s requested amendment. And not a few European governments were lured into opposing Bolivia’s courageous attempt to make the out-dated Treaty more workable. These strenuous diplomatic efforts succeeded in ensuring that Bolivia did not secure the support it needed to see an amendment pass. A total of seventeen countries presented formal objections to the amendment.

Bolivia’s probable reading of the situation was that there was little chance the matter would be settled in its favour at ECOSOC. It therefore decided by the end of June to denounce its membership of the 1961 Single Convention with effect six months hence, expressing its intention to return as a member with a reservation. The INCB immediately expressed its concern in a press release which set a certain combative tone.

Just before actual exit from the Treaty would enter into force, Bolivia presented the UN in New York its application to rejoin the Treaty on the 29th of December 2011, while reserving its right as regards the cultivation and use of the coca leaf in its natural state. The formal period laid down for joining the 1961 Single Convention is 30 days. Before that, the UN secretariat had the task of checking that the application was made in accordance with the rules, to translate and distribute the text to all Treaty members, who in turn will have 12 months to consider whether the content of the reservation is acceptable, a period that will expire on 10 January 2013. Only if one-third of all parties oppose the reservation, it will not pass.

In the meanwhile, Bolivia could be part of the 1961 Single Convention 30 days after presenting its adherence request, if the procedure is followed correctly. In its application presented to the UN, Bolivia conditioned its re-access upon the acceptance of the reservation text, leading the UN treaty section to postpone processing the accession request awaiting first the approval of the reservation by the other parties. For this reason Bolivia will be no member to the Treaty until the beginning of 2013, though Bolivia may still challenge this decision.

The task of the INCB is “to help the Government solve the problems in a respectful manner that may exist to both the letter and the spirit of the 1961 Convention”. In the submitted reservation, Bolivia reserves the right to allow in its territory traditional coca leaf chewing, but also in general the consumption and use of the coca leaf in its natural state, as well as the cultivation, trade and possession of the coca leaf to the extent necessary for these licit purposes. At the same time, the reservation clarifies that Bolivia will continue to take all necessary measures to control the cultivation of coca in order to prevent the illicit production of cocaine.This means assisting Bolivia to address problems with the implementation of the treaty.

It is clear from Bolivia’s application for qualified re-accession that Bolivia adheres to the spirit of the Convention and declares its intention to comply with all the provisions aimed at eradicating coca cultivation for the production and trafficking of cocaine. And this, after all, is what the world is concerned about and the real objective of the Convention. Instead, the INCB does everything but helping Bolivia. The 2011 annual report said to “deeply regret the unprecedented step taken by Bolivia”, and takes the liberty to pass judgment on a legitimate procedure chosen by a sovereign state.

More then sixty years have passed since a few scientists of dubious standing declared chewing of the coca leaf a pernicious habit. To date, no proof exists to support this. If the INCB does not see the sense of facilitating the efforts of Bolivia to pursue the spirit and objectives of the 1961 Single Convention without compromising its cultural and political sovereignty, then the only road left to the Andean country – or any country that feels inclined to defend traditional coca use – will be to start a procedure through the WHO to have the coca leaf removed from the list of controlled substances in the absence of any supporting evidence as to why it should be there in the first place.

[1] Curiously, in the Spanish version of the report the word “deep” (hondo) is added to regret, making the language even stronger.