Donald Trump speaks at United Nations General Assembly on drug policy

Trump kicks off UN general assembly with ‘problematic’ drug policy document

Several countries signed the document out of 'heavy diplomatic pressure' rather than actual agreement 

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Monday 24 September 2018 20:12

Donald Trump has kicked off the 2018 United Nations General Assembly by announcing what experts have labelled a problematic agreement to tackle the world drug problem, signed by 130 countries.

The US leader, who has said tackling America's opioid crisis is a priority for his administration, started his second year coming to the UN by saying he “always said UN has tremendous potential...and slowly but surely, it is being met”.

Among the 130 signatories to the global agreement are China and Mexico, a surprising move considering Mr Trump’s increasing tensions with both regarding trade and immigration.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres - described as “a great friend” by Mr Trump - was also at the meeting to say to the international community: “Failure is not an option” on this matter.

Colombia has also signed the agreement and Mr Trump commented he “look[s] forward to partnering with” with newly-elected President Ivan Duque - who ran for office on an “anti-drug” platform according to Mr Trump - to end cocaine production.

The very short meeting was primarily to introduce the agreement - named the Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem - but as senior international policy manager for New York-based research group Drug Policy Alliance, Hannah Hetzer told The Independent the document is “not legitimate”.

The agreement did not pass through the official UN channels and was not open to consensus or negotiation.

It also makes no mention of a key item on the UN’s agenda: the 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by all countries in 2015.

She called the less than 18-minute meeting “both a photo op [by the Trump administration] and an attempt to feign leadership on this issue while having proposed no real solution on countering drug addiction”.

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James Cockayne, the director at the Centre for Policy Research at United Nations University, told The Independent it was also an opportunity for US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Mr Trump to “signal to the Republican base” they are devoting attention to the domestic opioid crisis ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“It lets them send unequivocal signals that they are "tough on crime”. But it also lets them send important signals to other states that the US may have disagreements with later in the week, such as Russia, China and even Iran, that there are still areas where the US is willing to cooperate - where they have common adversaries,” Mr Cockayne said.

Ms Haley introduced Mr Trump at the meeting and said “"None of us would be here without” his leadership on the drug addiction.

Ms Hetzer said Mr Trump “is in no position to take leadership on this issue internationally when he has done little to nothing” domestically on the matter.

She also thought the entire meeting “rings false” since Ms Haley made mention of the “‘American’ problem of the opioid crisis without making links to international policy until a few minutes later”.

Mr Trump had supported the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, with the Republican version of the plan that had cut coverage for low-income Americans seeking treatment and counselling for addiction.

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He also, in Ms Hetzer’s estimation, the Trump administration has routinely “ignored the advice” of scientists and the medical community on public health solutions for curtailing overdose and addiction issues to play politics.

The meeting today was just a “veneer of leadership” she said.

Even if the document may not have passed through the official UN process, 130 countries have signed it.

Ms Hetzer and other experts told The Independent in the halls of the UN that was simply because of “heavy diplomatic pressure”.

Mr Cockayne said that may be the reason countries like Canada - which recently legalised marijuana - were in the room and a signatory.

There may have been “a sense in some countries that it is better to mollify the Trump administration where possible, rather than antagonise it,” he noted.

The US Mission may have invoked memories of past retribution from the administration - including threatening trade sanctions on countries like Ecuador if it introduced a resolution on breastfeeding over the use of formula, a $70bn industry in the US.

“The call is simple...reduce demand, cut off supply, expand treatment,” Mr Trump said about the document announced today.

According to drug policy experts, the problem with the document is also that it differs significantly from the last global policy approach agreed to at a 2016 special session the UN Office on Drugs and Crime had held in 2016.

While the outcome of that session led to a document with seven thematic areas including demand and supply reduction, human rights, new trends, and international cooperation - the new US document appears to be limited to four themes.

Ms Hetzer said the primary omission is ignoring the human rights aspect and caters to “countries committed to maintaining a punitive approach to a drug war” rather than comprehensive solutions.

Mr Cockayne echoed the statement, saying the meeting and document seemed to be, in part, a “rally support for a hardline approach to global drug policy at a time when some states are actively calling for a rethink to make it more humane.”

Mr Guterres also made mention of his sister’s work in Portugal as a psychiatrist at a drug counselling centre and that kind of work’s role in reducing instances of HIV and drug-related deaths in his home country, to perhaps signal his preference for a more health-based approach than what is in the US document.

Mr Cockayne said the Secretary General’s idea of a more compassionate approach may actually garner support from many in Mr Trump’s base, American communities in Ohio, West Virginia, and New Jersey who have been ravaged by drug-related illnesses and deaths.

He explained leaving out items like “harm reduction,” which includes safe injection sites and clinics for those currently using drugs, in the US call to action sends a “powerful signal”.

“The text can easily be read as supporting an approach that restricts medical assistance to those who have given up drug use, and are in “recovery,”’ he said.

The omission of any mention of “extra-judicial killings” is also concerning for UN member states, Mr Cockayne said.

The US president has in the past expressed support for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and his “drug war” policy of executing offenders.

Experts have said this means while the US wants their fellow members of the UN to join in on the fight to prevent drug addiction, the document stated there should also be “full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States”.

Mr Trump will be addressing the full General Assembly on 25 September and chairing a meeting of the Security Council later in the week, amid holding several bilateral meetings while in New York.

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