D-Day for Bolivia’s coca chewing amendment

European divide deepens over lifting ban on coca chewing | Hypocrisy rules in the arguments behind objections
Monday, January 31, 2011

mascan-coca-embajada-bolivia-quito-respaldar-peticion-onu2Today is the deadline for countries to submit objections to Bolivia’s proposed amendment to remove the ban on coca leaf chewing in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. As far as we know, six countries have formally notified the UN that they reject Bolivia’s amendment: the United States (January 19), Sweden (Jan 20), the United Kingdom (Jan 21), Canada (Jan 26), Denmark (Jan 28) and Germany (Jan 28). Some other European countries may add their objections today.

The U.S. government – anxious to avoid the impression they were the ones leading the opposition against the Bolivian proposal – initially convinced three other countries to object first so they could hide behind them. But the strategy failed when Egypt (last year), Macedonia (Jan 17) and finally Colombia (Jan 26) all withdrew their objections. The Non-Aligned Movement, Mercosur and UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) all expressed their support for the amendment.  The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the advisory body to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), strongly recommended that governments support the amendment. Civil society organizations worldwide are calling on countries to abstain from submitting an objection.

EU divided

Meanwhile the U.S. turned to its allies in the European Union, where especially the UK tried to rally support for the US objection. But the European Union was unable to agree on a coordinated position, and the divide only deepened further last week. The controversy appeared on the agenda of many EU coordination meetings in Brussels, Vienna and New York. Spain had made clear from the beginning they were not going to object; to the contrary, they would strongly support Bolivia’s proposal. Most other EU countries – all under heavy U.S. pressure to object – were undecided, and for several months Spain remained isolated in its explicit support, in spite of broad sympathy for their position from many EU officials in the corridors.

With the deadline of January 31st approaching, last week several other EU countries (Portugal, the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Belgium, Austria and Finland) made clear that they would not be objecting either. Norway and Switzerland (non-EU members) also made clear they had no objection to the amendment. On the other hand, Germany, Denmark, France, Italy and a few others, said they still intended to submit an objection and made a final appeal to others to join them. Germany and Denmark indeed sent their notification on Friday. For the EU, aspiring to reach common positions on international issues, it was a painful process to see the divide deepening.

The Bolivian amendment only proposes deleting the reference in the Single Convention (in article 49) saying that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished.”  The few objections submitted thus far make hardly any attempt to argue against what Bolivia has actually proposed. The U.S. objection merely states that the objective of the Single Convention is to limit the use of narcotic drugs exclusively to medical and scientific purposes and that Schedule I lists coca leaf as a narcotic drug. No further explanation is provided, but the implication is that because coca chewing is not a ‘medical or scientific purpose’ it needs to be abolished. The U.S. avoids to address the inconsistency with the 1988 Trafficking Convention saying that all measures “shall take due account of traditional licit uses, where there is historic evidence of such use” (article 14) or with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, key arguments brought forward by Bolivia. The UK , Canada and Denmark more or less copied and pasted from the text of the U.S. objection, not adding any further explanation.

Sweden and Germany , however, argue their objection somewhat differently. Sweden says it understands the concerns of Bolivia about the conflict between the Convention and the traditional coca leaf chewing. However, Sweden maintains that “the Bolivian proposal poses the risk of creating a political precedent and might directly infringe on the international framework for the fight against drugs” that “would send a negative signal.”

Germany recognizes “that the proposal touches upon complex development and health policy issues, in addition to the intricate drugs issues” and is aware of the particular importance of coca chewing “as part of the cultural identity of the indigenous population, the majority of all Bolivians”. Based foremost on “fundamental drug policy consideration” Germany cannot accept the amendment but proposes further dialogue with Bolivia and “will give favourable consideration to the question of convening a conference of states to discuss the issue”. Convening such a conference is precisely what the other objectors hope to avoid.

Hypocrisy rules

Perhaps starting to feel embarrassed under pressure from the media and thousands of coca-chewing protestors gathering last week in front of their embassy in La Paz, the U.S. issued a clarifying statement last week. The U.S. “respects the culture of indigenous peoples and recognizes that coca chewing is a traditional custom in Bolivian culture” and the “position of the U.S. government to not support the proposed amendment is based on the importance to maintain the integrity of the 1961 Convention, which constitutes an important tool for the global fight against drug trafficking.”

There is a profoundly disturbing hypocrisy behind this line of reasoning that has now become the main argument for the objection for the U.S. government and its EU allies. Of course they fully respect indigenous rights, they have no problem with coca chewing, they simply want to defend the integrity of the drug control treaty system, and allowing this amendment to be adopted would open a Pandora’s box. The Single Convention is sacrosanct, cast in stone, and allowing any changes would jeopardize the integrity of the control system.

Apparently they forgot that in 1971, a decade after the adoption of the Single Convention, the U.S. itself  propose numerous amendments. “The United States believes it is now time for the international community to build on the foundation of the Single Convention, since a decade has given a better perspective of its strengths and weaknesses”, they argued at the time . The UK was the first to support the U.S. call to improve the Convention and to convene a Conference of the Parties to discuss the proposals, adding some amendment proposals themselves, which led to the 1972 Protocol amending the 1961 Convention. At the time, the U.S. did not “regard its proposals as sacrosanct; it welcomed suggestions for new improvements; it hoped also that other countries would come forward with their own proposals, whether or not related to ones the United States had already made. It was pleased to see that the Swedish delegation had already begun that constructive process.” While the U.S. proposals were of course aiming to bolster the control regime and the role of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Sweden used the opportunity to offer other proposals, including positive ones, like deleting references to “addicts” in the treaty and introducing possibilities of alternative sentences for drug-dependent offenders.

So, the three main objectors to the Bolivian amendment proposal now, US, UK and Sweden, arguing the need to protect the integrity of the treaty by not allowing any amendments, were precisely the ones who proposed the first amendments themselves, at which time they argued the need for the control system to develop and improve.

The other disturbing element underlying their objections to Bolivia’s proposal now is that they are essentially saying to Bolivia: “We don’t really have a problem with coca chewing, but we prefer that you keep violating the Convention rather than try to change it according to the established procedures.” A more ‘negative signal’ regarding the integrity of the treaty system is difficult to imagine, coming from countries ostensibly protecting it.

Hopefully, today no other countries will submit objections and align themselves with such unfounded and hypocritical arguments against the amendment. While the deadlines for objections ends today, the decision making process around it will continue the months to come. The ECOSOC will have to reach a decision on how to proceed, and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) probably will be consulted about it during its annual session in March. Objecting countries will be challenged to present more substantive arguments to explain their position.

Given the embarrassing hypocrisy and flimsiness of their positions, the good news for the governments that have so far objected is that even though today marks the deadline to submit objections, governments can still withdraw their objections after today in the lead-up to the ECOSOC and CND discussions. That would be the only way to prevent further embarrassment about their disrespect for indigenous rights and for the integrity of UN treaties and about the hypocritical arguments most of them have used to try to justify their position.