US Drug Certification Process Is in Serious Need of Reform

Now that the March madness of United States drug certification is over for another year, it is time to revamp the legislation that requires the president annually to "certify" whether certain countries are reliable allies in the battle against illegal drugs. This year, more than ever before, the deep flaws in the certification process became painfully and dangerously apparent.

Attention was focused on Mexico and Colombia, the two largest suppliers of illicit drugs to the US. Mainly because US authorities have solid evidence that Colombia's president knowingly accepted campaign support from drug cartels, that country was again denied certification - despite the efforts of many Colombian officials and private sector leaders to improve the nation's antidrug performance, and the progress achieved. President Clinton certified Mexico, even though its counternarcotics chief was arrested in February for his links with drug dealers. Relations with Mexico were badly strained, nonetheless, when the US House voted overwhelmingly to reverse the White House decision - an action subsequently made moot by a milder Senate resolution that was critical of Mexico but didn't demand its decertification.

It is easy to point out what is wrong with US drug certification:

The process is supposed to promote cooperation. Instead, it provokes conflict between the US and other countries, and also among different agencies of the US government and between Congress and the White House.

We should be seeking to reward and strengthen the hand of those foreign officials who are most inclined to collaborate with US efforts. Certification, instead, often isolates and weakens our potentially most reliable partners (in the fight against drugs and in other areas as well) and bolsters those who most resist cooperation.

The process should assure the US an accurate accounting of antidrug efforts worldwide. Instead, it often produces less-than-frank assessments needed to justify a particular certification decision.

Defenders of certification rightly claim that the process forces US policymakers and foreign leaders to give serious attention to the international drug trade. But it is the wrong kind of attention, focused on what has to be done quickly to meet certification requirements, not on how best to control narcotics. US drug czar Barry McCaffrey has raised questions about the utility of certification - and many others in Congress and the executive branch are searching for ways to reform the process.

Two fundamental changes are needed.

First, new legislation should abandon the requirement for a bottom line, thumbs up or thumbs down judgment. It should focus on getting a careful, multidimensional analysis of the drug problems facing different nations, the seriousness and effectiveness of government actions to address those problems, and the quality of collaboration with the US.

The model is the US State Department's annual review of countries' human rights practices. Although once viewed as politically suspect, today the department's reports are comprehensive and hard-hitting. They are highly regarded by professional human rights groups - private and intergovernmental - many of whom remain critical of other aspects of US rights policy. Clearly, human rights reporting has one important advantage: There already exist widely accepted standards and methods to measure country performance. These still need to be developed for antidrug efforts.

SECOND, the US should not keep the counternarcotics review to itself; it should be working with other countries to get the reporting task done. That would add to both the credibility and the legitimacy of the outcome. It would not mean a watering down of the judgments rendered; the multilateral human rights reporting of the UN and Organization of American States provide professional and forceful assessments. True, the State Department's human rights analysis is carried out unilaterally, but similar analyses are being conducted by many other groups, and these serve as a check on the US effort and help to assure its quality.

Few US initiatives would do more to strengthen international antidrug cooperation than abandoning the current certification process and replacing it with high-quality reporting and analysis done on a multilateral basis.

* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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