The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem

Report of proceedings
September 2016

ungass2016-idpcIn October 2012, the governments of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico issued a joint declaration calling for a UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) to be held on the urgent issue of drug policy. The conference – the 30th Special Session, and the third focused on drugs – took place in New York from 19th to 21st April 2016. The meeting comprised a Plenary – at which a pre-negotiated Outcome Document was adopted at the very start, followed by a varied and long list of country statements – and a series of five thematic "roundtable" debates.


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The preparations for this Special Session were led from 6,700 km away in Vienna, Austria, by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and guided by a specially appointed 'UNGASS Board'. The scope of the UNGASS debate was promptly restricted to be 'within the framework of the three international drug control conventions'. The UNGASS Outcome Document was also negotiated entirely in Vienna, in a rushed series of 'informal informals', which are closed meetings with a large number of UN member states absent and from which civil society observers are excluded. The lack of transparency and accountability in this process led a large group of civil society organisations to raise serious reservations in a joint public statement.

By the time the show moved to New York in April, the Outcome Document was already finalised and a number of barriers were in place to hinder civil society participation. This all served to ensure that the UNGASS was not the drug policy revolution that some stakeholders seemed to be expecting. In spite of these challenges, the UNGASS created much needed momentum and mobilisation for reform among civil society, UN agencies, the media and several member states. It also provided the clearest indication to date that the global consensus on drug policy is fundamentally broken.

While many people came away with mixed emotions, the UNGASS has undoubtedly ploughed fertile ground for ongoing efforts to reform and improve the global response to drugs.

This IDPC report offers an overview and analysis of the UNGASS, covering the adoption of the UNGASS outcome document, the plenary, roundtables and side events, as well as civil society engagement in and outside the UN building.