To Look Tough on Drugs, and Please the US, the UK is Willing to Trample on Indigenous Rights

This is the supply-side enforcement approach to drugs that has dominated since the mid 20th Century. We now know this to be quixotic, abusive nonsense even as it remains so vigorously pursued. Today, more than 180 countries have signed up.

In 1961 the United Kingdom signed a treaty that included provisions designed to strip indigenous people in the Andean region of aspects of their traditions and cultures. The treaty was the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and the traditions related to sacramental and medicinal uses of the coca leaf.

It is difficult to see a similar provision being agreed today. It is arbitrary, disproportionate and violates contemporary international legal norms. Governments are less willing today to be so overt in their disregard for indigenous communities. But to look tough on drugs and please the United States, the UK is still willing to defend it.

The Single Convention, still the bedrock of the international legal system on drugs, was based on the claim that in order to protect the health of people at home (read: rich, consumer nations) from the 'evil' of addiction (the treaty's words) it was necessary to eradicate production of certain plants in developing countries. This is the supply-side enforcement approach to drugs that has dominated since the mid 20th Century. We now know this to be quixotic, abusive nonsense even as it remains so vigorously pursued. Today, more than 180 countries have signed up.

To follow this through it was deemed necessary to abolish certain existing cultural practices relating to those plants. No matter the meaning to cultures, traditions, religions or indigenous peoples. No matter the evidence of the relative harms or lack thereof relating to these practices. The treaty required, in particular, that traditional uses of coca (such as chewing the unprocessed leaf) that had been in place for thousands of years, should be abolished within twenty-five (Coca Cola's use of the same leaves as a 'flavouring agent' was protected in the treaty). This was and remains deeply offensive to the Andean communities affected.

When Bolivia became a party to the treaty in 1976 it was under the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer. Today Bolivia has an indigenous President, Evo Morales, who has led efforts to correct what is widely seen as an historical injustice.

The way this has been pursued by the Bolivian government has been strikingly reasonable, with every effort made to do so in conformity with the treaty and with respect for international law. After a blocked effort to amend the treaty by agreement with the other parties, Bolivia has withdrawn temporarily and plans to join again with a minor caveat or 'reservation' protecting indigenous and traditional practices. It is not an ideal solution, but it is more than justified in the circumstances. The treaty is plainly wrong.

According to the terms of the 1961 agreement, a third of the parties (or over sixty nations) would have to officially object to this reservation for Bolivia to be barred from re-entering the treaty. This is no small matter as trade agreements can be contingent on countries remaining signed up.

Very few governments have made such an objection. Among those that have, to its considerable discredit, is the United Kingdom. It is joined by Canada, Sweden and Italy, all following the US, which was first to object back in July.

The UK entered its official objection notification with the UN on 14th December, four days after the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that not only should the UK support Bolivia in this endeavour (this being one of the many wrongs of war on drugs and one of the easiest to solve), but that it should encourage other governments to do so too.

In its official notification to the UN the UK claims that allowing for traditional uses of coca would increase the production of coca plants and therefore diversion into illicit supply for cocaine production. This is an inevitable claim, setting out a foreign nation's interest in the matter. But it has little in the way of evidence or experience to back it up, and it is oxymoronic following commendation of Bolivia in the same document for its reductions in coca production over the years even alongside ongoing traditional use.

At a time when even the Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister disagree on the right thing to do about drugs at home, the certainty of the assertion is also deeply hypocritical.

It is also claimed that Bolivia's denunciation of the Single Convention would weaken international law on drug control and thus responses to the drug trade, without questioning the quality of that law for this aim, or why it says what it says. International law as it relates to human rights and indigenous rights, however, is not mentioned (by the UK or any of the other objecting states), but is of course central to this issue. This aspect of international law has moved on significantly since 1961, which the UK well knows. It adopted the now universally accepted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 which is directly applicable, along with multiple binding treaties to which the UK is also a party.

Curiously, the UK says in its objection that it 'acknowledges and respects the cultural importance of the coca leaf in Bolivia'. It also recognises the status of traditional uses of coca under the Bolivian Constitution. These are important words and reflect that change in views one would have expected since the 1960s. But in what way does the UK in fact 'respect' the cultural importance of coca when going on to try to see through the destruction of the manifestation of that culture?

Bolivia's reservation on the Single Convention will stand because most of the nations of the world support the move and/or see this as a very small issue not worthy or interfering with. The UK knows this. Everybody paying attention knows this. So the question must be why the UK would enter this objection. The move is futile. The aim is abusive and ineffective in addressing problems relating to cocaine. On the face of it, it is poor PR and bad for the UK's reputation. There is, therefore, only one realistic conclusion: making the US happy.

During 2012 more and more Latin American nations have directly challenged the US and said openly that they want an international review of drug control laws - to count the costs of fifty years of the war on drugs and look at alternatives. The UK, Sweden, Italy and Canada have joined the US in saying that even on the most obvious and easiest of changes, they do not intend to budge.

In a more immediate sense this allowed the US to save face in the relatively closed world of international drugs diplomacy. For five months the US had been embarrassingly alone on this. But with the UK, Canada, Sweden and Italy obediently following, the US can say, whatever happens, that it was not the only one willing to publicly and openly trample on indigenous rights to continue to appear tough on drugs.


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