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OAS Secretary General Participated in Roundtable on New Approaches to Drug Policy Organized by Uruguayan Mission

  September 17, 2013

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, participated in the Roundtable “Uruguay: Open Debate. New Approaches to Drug Policy. Perspective from a Human and Social Development Viewpoint,” organized by the South American country’s Mission to the multilateral institution.

In his address, the Secretary General outlined the main elements of the “Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas” (Analytical Report and Scenarios Report) that the hemispheric organization elaborated, under his leadership, in compliance with the 2012 Summit of the Americas’ mandate, a document which, he said, was presented “because for 40 years the same drug policy has been implemented and that, for some reason, it does not work.” The head of the OAS reiterated that the report “does not propose or favor any specific alternative, but mentions all options that are discussed in debates on the subject.”

The Roundtable, which took place in the Hall of the Americas at OAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., was organized in two panels. The first one focused on the following topics: “New Approaches to Drug Policy”; “The Open Debate throughout the Hemisphere to Seek Alternatives to the War on Drugs”; “The Declaration of La Antigua and the Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas”, and “Uruguay’s Path.” The second panel addressed the following themes: “The Human Development Perspective in the Current Challenge of Drug Policy Alternatives and Public Security,” and “The Conceptual Framework of Human Development and its Relationship to Challenges facing Latin America and the Region.”

Secretary General Insulza emphasized in particular the human factor that lies behind the scourge of drugs. “The two structural problems of democracy in Latin America are inequality on the one hand, and crime on the other,” he said. The OAS leader noted that social mobility in Latin America is almost inexistent and, while one cannot speak of caste societies, it can be said that societies are clearly stratified because climbing from one level to the other is very difficult.

Moreover, he indicated that within the community there are organized groups of individuals that follow other laws than those set by society, which are not democratic. “This occurs with criminal organizations, which hold their own values, their own ways of life, values and operate independently from society,” he added.

The Secretary General noted that most people who are involved in drug trafficking come from the lowest social strata, and he recalled that, in many cases, traffickers can count on the protection of common people. “This is a very sensitive issue that we have to take into account, because dealing with those who choose the drug alternative and dealing with those who use drugs because they have no other choice is not the same.” In this regard, he said that “there are criminal families and groups whom it is very difficult to bring out of that dynamic, because for traffickers, the only drug danger is the risk, and what is the risk for those who have no other option”?

Despite the difficulties, the Secretary General said that we must look ahead with optimism because the Hemisphere is on the right track to find a solution to the problem. The leader of the hemispheric institution noted that the primary objective of the report—and of the OAS in preparing it—was precisely to open the debate currently underway in the region.

Meanwhile, the Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the OAS, Milton Romani, said that the Declaration of La Antigua, adopted by the OAS General Assembly held last June in that Guatemalan city, is an opening to the political dialogue on alternative models for the global drug problem.

Ambassador Romani also said that the OAS Report on drugs “constitutes a crucial input to a debate that is just beginning,” and he appreciated the fact that “it is not a list of recommendations, but rather possible paths to be taken by States and their likely consequences.”

The Uruguayan diplomat indicated that his country “is opting for an alternative path in the framework of a comprehensive and balanced strategy aimed at regulating the cannabis market with a proposal in accordance with national conditions to address the drug problem.” In this regard, he noted that it seeks the same objectives as those established in ratified international treaties but offers an opportunity to update them, “based on the faithful compliance with human rights”.

Participants to the first panel were Coleta Youngers, Senior Fellow of the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA); Peter Hakim, President Emeritus at the Inter-American Dialogue, and Jennifer McCoy, Director of the Carter Center’s Americas Program.

WOLA’s Senior Fellow noted that for decades the United States led the debate on drugs, but now Latin America was leading the initiative. “This debate began with the recent recognition of current policies’ failure in achieving objectives, as well as the high costs incurred by Latin American countries—some more than others—in the implementation of these policies,” Youngers added.

Director McCoy recounted how the Carter Center continues the discussion from a human right perspective and stated that the legal fight against illicit drugs generates violations to these rights. “Unlike other addictive substances such as alcohol and tobacco, the mere possession and use of illicit drugs are criminalized in most countries of the Hemisphere, forcing millions of people to be incarcerated, often and during long periods of time, which separates them from their families, results in the overspending of public resources and prevents the existence of an efficient health treatment when it is needed,” McCoy said.

Meanwhile, the President Emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue commended Uruguay for “its courage” to choose an alternative path to the prohibition policy and quoted the Uruguayan President, José Mujica, noting that “this is an experiment.” Hakim also assessed as positive the OAS Report on the subject and recalled that when the presidents of the region at the 2012 Summit of the Americas mandated the hemispheric institution to prepare the report, “no one thought that the report was to generate such a debate.”

Participants to the second panel were Cynthia Arnson, Director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Rodrigo Serrano, World Bank Expert; Andrés Restrepo, Senior Expert in Citizen Security at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and Adriana Henao, Specialist of the Inter-American Commission on Drug Abuse Control (CICAD) of the OAS.

In her presentation, Director Arnson emphasized that high levels of violence occur throughout the whole drug trafficking chain, but she noted that the major issue comes from the fight for the control of trafficking routes, in particular in Mexico and Central America. “We have very incomplete data, but there are reports that show that there is a very close link between the number of homicides and drug trafficking hot spots,” she asserted.

Expert Serrano explained that the World Bank considers that drug policy is part of citizen security and that, from the Bank’s standpoint, security is closely linked to development and poverty issues, which are among its mandates. Serrano indicated that the Work Bank is involved in the drug issue “at the request of the region’s governments,” and as an example, he stated that “75 percent of the countries of the region have (intentional) homicide rates that exceed the threshold of what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls a violence epidemic,” which consists of 10 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. He also said that in some countries “70 percent of crimes are concentrated in 10 percent of the national territory.”

The IDB Expert said that the human race is playing a vital role in “a great failure of intelligence” when he explained the results of the current situation in the fight against drugs. Expert Restrepo recalled the high levels of violence that drug trafficking generated in the 90s in his country, Colombia. He commended in particular the proposal of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which stated that “individuals and not countries’ territories must be at the center of citizen security action.”

Finally, CICAD specialist called all multilateral organizations and agencies to join forces in order to face the drug problem through development. “We need a holistic and comprehensive approach,” Henao said. Furthermore, as an example, she indicated that in several countries, labor or social development ministries “do not feel concerned with the drug issue when they could provide many solutions to individuals involved in micro-trafficking.”

The Roundtable was transmitted live in the Maggiolo Room of the University of the Republic of Uruguay in Montevideo, from which many people asked questions to the panelists, who answered them in real time. The event was sponsored by the National Council on Drugs of Uruguay and the Dean of the School of Psychology.

A gallery of photos of the event is available here.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-346/13