Blog Post

Countries Should Resist Trump’s Drug War Photo Op at UN

Hannah Hetzer

As leaders from around the world gather in New York, Philippine President Duterte is charging ahead with his drug policy based on extra-judicial executions, countries in Latin America suffer unstaunched violence from the drug war, and tens of thousands of people are dying from overdoses in the U.S. President Trump’s solution? Inviting countries to pose with him for a photo before he lectures leaders about “The World Drug Problem”. 

On September 24, Trump will kick off his appearance at the United Nations General Assembly by hosting an event on “The World Drug Problem,” at which UN Member States can pose for a photo with Trump after he, US Ambassador Nikki Haley, and the UN Secretary-General provide remarks. The event is tied to “The Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem,” a document that the United States Mission to the United Nations has been circulating to governments to sign. If countries sign on to the document – the text of which “is not open for negotiation” – they are promised an invitation to the September 24 event and an opportunity to “participate in a group photo” with Trump. Both the text of the Global Call to Action and the manner in which the US government has circulated it are –  unsurprisingly – highly problematic, representing a complete disregard for multilateralism and regular UN processes.

President Trump is the last person who should be defining the global debate on drug policy. From his support of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war to his call for the death penalty for people who sell drugs (which he reaffirmed just last month at an event announcing support for drug-free communities), Trump has shown complete disdain for human rights and international law. Governments should be very wary of signing on to this document and showing up for the photo op at Trump’s event.

Though the Global Call to Action may appear straightforward, it has several significant problems. The document makes no mention of the Sustainable Development Goals or development more broadly, a striking omission given the commitment of the global community to use the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as the overarching framework for the coming decade. Similarly, it omits key UN agencies that have made significant contributions to the drug debate over the past years, including the UN Development Program, UNAIDS and UN Women. It makes only a token reference to the need to align drug policy with human rights despite the growing recognition of the issue by both the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. Finally, its four-pronged approach to global strategy represents a significant retreat from the comprehensive, multi-faceted approach adopted by global consensus at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs held in 2016.

Beyond clear problems with the language of the document, the process by which the US government has drafted and circulated it shows – in Trump’s typical style – a clear disregard for multilateralism. UN documents are the product of consensus; this Global Call to Action is a unilateral move orchestrated by the US government that shows utter disregard for regular UN processes, and it should not be afforded a modicum of legitimacy. It is not an official document, it has not gone through any of the official channels, it was neither negotiated nor is it negotiable, and its unusual linking to the September 24 event and the photo opportunity with Trump is highly questionable. This is clearly an example of Trump attempting to wade into the international drug policy debate and create a splashy camera-ready opportunity, carefully orchestrated to create the appearance of support from dozens of other countries. Many of whom will have signed up not because they agree with the Global Call, but because the US government has used heavy-handed diplomatic pressure to get them to sign.

It is worth noting that on the same day that Trump will host the event at the UN, a distinguished group of former heads of state will be pushing for exactly the opposite of Trump’s regressive policies. The Global Commission on Drug Policy – comprised of former Presidents and Prime Ministers of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, East Timor, Greece, Malawi, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, Portugal, and Switzerland – will be launching their new report Regulation: The Responsible Control of Drugs, which examines how governments can take control of currently illegal drug markets through responsible regulation, and calls for reform of the prohibition-based international drug control system. The contrast between the innovative, forward-looking approach of the group of former world leaders and Trump’s backward-looking drug war dogma is striking. One can only hope that the bright lights from Trump’s splashy reality show set will not distract from this important message. 

Hannah Hetzer is Senior International Policy Manager at Drug Policy Alliance.