WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
21 Nov 2012 | Commentary | News

UN International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development: Part II

By Coletta A. Youngers, WOLA Senior Fellow

This commentary is the second in a two-part series exploring drug reform dynamics on the international stage. As drug policy reforms advance in Uruguay, Mexico, and the United States, challenges remain in confronting the existing international drug policy paradigm and structures, which remain averse to change.

The International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development approved last week at an international meeting in Lima, Peru, represents a lost opportunity to promote equitable economic development in some of the world’s poorest regions. The final document on the Guiding Principles bears little resemblance to the document that was originally drafted in November 2011 in Thailand by a group of more than 100 governmental and non-governmental experts. While some good language is maintained on human rights and the role of civil society, among other issues, the Guiding Principles have strayed far from the original purpose of encouraging development ministries and agencies to invest their resources in areas where coca and poppy crops are grown.

Many international development organizations and intergovernmental bodies such as the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have long refused to take part in alternative development efforts in large part because those efforts have been perceived to be economically unviable. Other products simply could not compete with the profit provided by crops used for manufacturing illicit drugs. Some also expressed concern that forced eradication campaigns alienate the very population whose support is needed to ensure the long-term success of development projects. Over time, however, the concept of alternative development has evolved to encompass a holistic approach to improving the income opportunities and overall quality of life for poor farmers. The concept of “proper sequencing” has also taken hold among key donor agencies; in other words, viable economic alternatives must be in place prior to the elimination of crops cultivated for illicit markets.

The International Guiding Principles adopted in Lima once again place alternative development as “complementary” to “law enforcement and illicit crop elimination,” rather than as the primary means of creating conditions that allow for improved livelihoods and the reduction of coca and poppy crops. Of particular concern, the document states that alternative development efforts should be carried out “in full conformity with the three drug conventions,” rather than the UN Millennium Development Goals. Most disturbingly, and in stark contrast to the tone of the discussions in Thailand, the document adopted in Lima underscores the role of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) “as the United Nations organs with prime responsibility for drug control matters.” That simply misses the point. It is the UN Development Program that should be called into action, along with other development agencies, certainly not the diplomatically-stifled CND or the INCB, the over-exuberant defender of the international drug control conventions.

The revised document does address the issue of proper sequencing, albeit in less detail than in the original draft. However, it eliminates a crucial related point that governments agreed to in Thailand: “Development assistance should not be conditional on reductions in illicit cultivation.” The document adopted in Lima also eliminates the importance of taking “due account of the traditional licit uses of crops where there is historic evidence of such use,” which the Bolivian government succeeded in having adopted during the Thailand meeting.  Certain diplomats in Vienna, it seems, simply could not tolerate such language.

They were able to prevail because the process was designed to prevent serious debate on the issues. Peruvian authorities made clear that any points not agreed to by diplomats in Vienna prior to the Lima meeting would simply be eliminated from the final document. Carmen Macias, the head of Peru’s anti-drug agency DEVIDA, stated to the Peruvian press that the meeting consisted of “long days of hard work and learning.” In fact, like so many other such events, government officials sat through four panels of speakers with no chance for meaningful discussion. In short, the hardest work was put towards stifling any debate.

As pointed out by my colleague, Pien Metaal, the next opportunity for debate will take place at the CND meeting in March 2013, when the International Guiding Principles will be presented for approval. Having observed numerous CND meetings I can predict that while some debate will no doubt take place, the final product will be reduced to the least common denominator since all outcomes are determined by consensus. However, those countries that remain the stanch defenders of the existing international drug control regime—fearful that any changes threaten to bring it down—will be hard pressed to divert the growing calls for serious consideration of drug policy reforms. At the same time as the Lima Alternative Development meeting, the Ibero-American summit was taking place in Cadiz, Spain. Echoing a previous statement from the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala, the governments gathered in Cadiz reiterated in their official declaration that a UN General Assembly Special Session should be held by no later than 2015 to evaluate the advances and failures of present policies. In contrast to what took place in Lima, stifling the debate will likely be increasingly difficult. 

Part I of this commentary can be found here.

A group of experts from Asia, Latin America, and Europe, convened by the Observatory of Crops Declared Illicit (OCDI) based in Valencia, Spain, has produced a declaration on the International Guiding Principles on Alternative Development that can be read here