UNGASS 2016 – Role of Civil Society

The real challenge for NGOs will be to succeed in making contributions to the most ambitious debate in the past twenty years

From 13 to 17 April the 17th "Drugs and Cooperation" seminar was held in Cordoba (Spain) under the auspices of the Ibero-American Network of NGOs dealing with substance abuse (RIOD). This year’s seminar focused on interventions strategies  from a Public Health perspective. Dianova International was present as part of a discussion panel in which the role of civil society in UNGASS 2016 preparatory process. 


United Nations General Assembly Special Sessions (UNGASS) are meetings of UN member states, convened by the Secretary-General, at the request of the Security Council, or by the majority of member states. These special sessions assess and debate global issues such as disarmament (1982), the apartheid (1989) or AIDS (2001).

UNGASS 2016 will be the second time the UN General Assembly will meet to solely focus on the world drug problem after 1998’s Special Session, when for the first time the General assembly had assigned the same level of importance to demand reduction as other components of the international drug control regime. The session had concluded with a political declaration committing some 150 member states to achieve “significant and measurable results” in reducing supply and demand for drugs by 2008. In addition, apart from the member states’ commitments and pledges, the general assembly had for the first time called upon NGOs to work more closely with governments and others in assessing the drug problem, identifying workable solutions and implementing appropriate policies and programs.

According to the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs (VNGOC) the 1998 target date had  presented an opportunity for NGOs to reflect on their own achievements in drug control, exchange ideas on promising approaches and innovative programs, and reach agreements on ways to work together and make recommendations to international agencies and UN Member States on future directions for drug control.

In addition, in an effort to assess the outcomes of the 1998 commitment, the VNGOC had taken the initiative, with support of UNODC, to launch “Beyond 2008”, a global consultation process meant to contribute the voice of civil society to policy review and priority-setting effort.  After two year’s labor, nine regional consultations and more than 900 NGOs consulted across all five continents, the process had culminated in Vienna, July 2008, with the “Beyond 2008” NGO Forum where representatives from 300 NGOs had adopted a declaration handed over to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND).

For the first time since the implementation of the international drug control regime, NGOs and civil society were able to make their voices heard.

Beyond 2008 – Independent evaluation (2009), doc. pdf

Next Step : UNGASS 2016

Speaking out is one thing, participating fully in decision-making and priority-setting processes is quite another one. Nevertheless, building on the success of "Beyond 2008", the Vienna and New York NGO Committees on Drugs (VNGOC and NYNGOC) launched the ‘Civil Society Task Force’ joint initiative (CSTF) to contribute to the preparatory process of and at the UNGASS 2016, that is to say, the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem.

In December 2014, the CSTF launch was co-sponsored by the Permanent Missions of Italy, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and the USA, before an audience of Member States representatives, UN experts, fellow NGOs and students; in addition, the initiative was endorsed by UNODC which encouraged grassroots NGOs to share their experiences on effective drug policies and on those that do not work.

This newly created body will act as official liaison between the UN and civil society in the UNGASS preparatory process. CSTF now consists of 26 members, transparently elected, and representing the world’s various regions (RIOD was elected representative of Latin America and the Caribbean). CSTF representatives cover most drug-related domains, including advocacy, field work, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, harm reduction and social reintegration. The Task Force has also a roadmap summarizing the principal activities to be implemented before UNGASS.  At this moment, a global drug survey was launched at the end of March 2015 to measure the level of awareness, knowledge and interest of civil society to participate in UNGASS preparatory process. 


The international drug control regime is slowly evolving as shown in the last meeting of the CND in March 2015:  many delegations have emphasized more focus on health and development, less criminalization, more respect for human rights and proportionality in sentencing, better access to opioids to help manage chronic pain as well as other essential medicines, etc. The discussions are clearly moving in the right direction – that of an humanization of the drug control regime, thanks in a large part to the commitment of grassroots NGOs and civil society.  

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that the implementation of CSTF is an important step, but the real challenge for NGOs will be to succeed in making contributions to the most ambitious debate in the past twenty years. It is well acknowledged that NGOs working in the drug field span a vast ideological continuum, and may have opposing positions. We must therefore strive to focus on each NGO’s experience, know-how and value-added benefit, regardless of their ideological stripe.