UN antidrug conference chalks up significant firsts

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There were few political rows among delegates and no protesters outside the Austria Center complex. As meetings and plenaries continued quietly behind closed doors, the hallways were rather still and empty. Although not dramatic, the United Nations International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking - a 10-day meeting which ends today - was substantive.

``The primary goal of this conference was to get a demonstration of togetherness on the drugs issue. We've done that,'' said one UN official who asked not to be identified.

Despite the lack of media-generated enthusiasm, the conference marked a number of significant ``firsts.''

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It was the first-ever meeting of the UN member states to discuss and assess both the supply and demand sides of the drug abuse chain. It was the first UN conference to feature a quasi-trade show in which countries could exhibit their drug-sniffing dogs, antidrug videos, and the like. And with 138 nations represented at the conference, it was the first time the global community had come together at a governmental level to develop a consensus on how to tackle a global drug problem that long ago reached crisis proportions.

The surprise at the conference came from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries, which offered their cooperation to the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC) for the first time in its 16-year history.

In the past, Soviet bloc delegations have been known to walk out of sessions when the topic of UNFDAC, the operational arm of the UN for drug abuse control, was raised.

Although the Soviet Union and Hungary, in particular, continue to deny that there is any drug problem within their borders, statements at the conference from both countries reflected an understanding for the need to improve cooperation in the exchange of technology and information used to fight drug traffickers.

The willingness of Hungary to be more frank about ``small problems among youths in the urban centers'' who are increasingly abusing prescription drugs underscores a trend among UN-member states to cast aside ideological isolationism in the hope of making a dent in the world's $300 billion a year drug industry.

As a result, two new documents of global significance to the fight against drugs have emerged. The first document is called the Comprehensive Multidisciplinary Outline (CMO).

Over 100 pages, the CMO is a practical handbook of recommended steps for governmental and nongovernmental organizations to use to combat the full spectrum of drug abuse - from growers and manufacturers to traffickers, pushers, and rehabilitation of users.

Thirty-four areas are listed as ``targets,'' and underneath each targed heading are a list of suggestions.

For example, under ``Prevention of Drug Abuse in the Workplace,'' the suggestions include: ``Set up a national training workshop for supervisors aimed at preventing drug abuse at work; require persons performing transport, security, public safety, or other sensitive functions to undergo suitable testing.''

The major criticism lodged at the CMO is that it is nonbinding. United States Ambassador to the UN Vernon Walters says, ``I think everybody realizes it's not enough to make pious statements; you've got to put teeth in them. And that requires a legal document. That's what I'm hoping we will move toward.'' The second important document issued at the conference is a declaration for future action. Again a nonbinding paper, the declaration sets an ``agenda for the 1990s'' according to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Among several priorities, the document calls for increased financial support for UNFDAC. Sweden has announced its donation of $11 million to UNFDAC, Great Britain made a $6 million pledge, and several smaller nations pledged smaller amounts.

``Support for these efforts,'' Mr. Mahathir says, ``is one way in which nations can give practical evidence of their support'' in international efforts to stem drug abuse.

Thailand: antidrug success story

Eleven years ago, some 200 tons of opium were illegally produced in Thailand. Today, the figure is 20 tons, and falling.

In northern Thailand, cabbages and coffee beans grow in former opium poppy fields.

``It's an example of how crop reduction can work,'' with the international community's help, says Giuseppe di Gennaro, director of the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC).

UNFDAC and the Thai government pioneered the crop substitution method in 1976. Kidney beans, cabbage, and coffee were identified as crops that would grow in the north. A plan was formed to free farmers from a century-old dependence on opium for cash. The first step was to convince farmers of an alternative cash source.

Rather than give farmers ``financial incentives'' to abandon their old crops, ``we start from a completely different point of view,'' he says. ``We say cultivating these substances is a crime against humanity.... In other places where there is hunger and poverty, we don't accept illicit crop cultivation.''

UNFDAC workers trained farmers to grow and market their new crops. Schools were built, and roads widened.

Success depends on two basics, says Gennaro. ``First, it is the duty of the individual to abandon [illegal] cultivation. Second, it is the moral duty of the international community to provide [assistance] to help the farmer take his steps.''

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