The story of a missing photo: Civil society participation and mistreatment at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs

When it comes to drug policy, civil society engagement at the UN has improved dramatically over the past 20 years. But, as campaigners learnt at the latest session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, important challenges remain.

By Juan Fernández Ochoa, IDPC Campaigns and Communications Officer

Civil society engagement in drug-policy-making is of tremendous importance; not least because nongovernmental, and especially community-based, organisations, have specialised knowledge and expertise with firm roots in first-hand experience.

The value of this direct connection with on-the-ground realities cannot be overstated. Like in every other aspect of policymaking, ensuring drug policy responds to the needs and experiences of the peoples it concerns, particularly those most affected, is key to their effectiveness. Creating clear links between the grassroots and policy making processes is all the more important at UN level – where the disconnection between bureaucracy and the realities on the ground is generally most pronounced.

At the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), civil society participation and engagement has improved significantly over the last 20 years. Almost 500 representatives registered to attend the 2019 session, compared to only a couple dozen in 1998. Country statements now regularly express support for civil society participation, and progressively more Member States include NGOs in their official delegations. In formal terms, the recognition of civil society’s contribution to international drug-policymaking has been more robustly enshrined in the UNGASS Outcome Document, the 2019 Ministerial Declaration and recent CND resolutions.

Yet, on the first day of the regular segment of the CND’s 62nd session, together with a group of about 80 colleagues, we were reminded of the fragility of civil society participation in these spaces.

And that reminder came with a very special photo. Indeed, while the Support. Don’t Punish campaign shines the brightest at the local level, we realised CND would be a great opportunity to snap a campaign “family photo”. After all, many civil society colleagues who have embraced the campaign and what it stands for attend CND regularly. And given the symbolic importance of the 2019 session, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to come together in solidarity.

Knowing security restrictions are high, we contacted the Security and Safety Service of the UN headquarters in Vienna ahead of time to ask for permission to organise the group photo. We were told that, as long as we did not take photos of passers-by, a group photo should not be a problem.

But a few weeks before the photo was to take place, we realised something was missing. A Support. Don’t Punish family photo felt incomplete without our friends and colleagues who could not be in Vienna.

Our growing movement is global and diverse, and we wanted to acknowledge this. So, we decided to print a few photos from the more than 10,000 that the campaign has received from all over the world.

It was a small gesture. It would not change the injustices and obstacles that hinder affected communities making their voices heard in Vienna. But it was the least we could do to acknowledge our global, common cause.

We convened on Monday at 12:45 at the UN’s courtyard, set up the camera on the tripod and started unrolling the prints, and sharing around A4-size flyers with the Support. Don’t Punish. logo to hold up for the photo.

And then, as we were almost ready to click the shutter button, some 8 security guards appeared and told us we could not take the photo without permission. Luckily for us, we had written permission! But this did not convince some of the guards, who asked us to wait until they could do the necessary checks. So, we waited.

A minute later, we were told our photos and flyers would not be allowed in the photo and had to be put away immediately, as they were considered to be a form of protest. We were confused and incredibly disappointed. Some of us started recording the situation, only to be scolded by security guards, who explained recording was not allowed at the UN.

Dejected but determined, we complied; expecting to then go outside the UN premises, where seemingly-arbitrary restrictions do not apply, in order to take the photo as originally intended.

But right after we snapped the photo above, someone rushed towards our group, introduced herself as the Head of Security and launched into an unexpectedly aggressive tirade against our group. ‘I cannot believe this!’ —she said — ‘You know you cannot organise protests and demonstrations in the UN building!’.

The photo was never intended as a protest, so I calmly replied this was no such thing, but rather a group photo of a well-known campaign that has received wide-ranging support, including from several governments and UN representatives. My explanation seemed to stoke her anger: ‘You always say that’ —she continued, despite it being the first time I had ever talked to this person— “Oh, I didn’t know” —she said mockingly— ‘Come on! You know you cannot do this here! You’re not stupid!’.

My heart sunk. In shock, I looked around for a second at the rest of my colleagues and saw a sea of worried, confused faces. The rest of the guards started taking away the photos we had printed. And our flyers. For reasons we still do not understand.

Her monologue went on, addressing the group as a whole: ‘I have a meeting today with regard to your participation in these spaces and, at the moment, I am inclined to recommend that you are not allowed back’.

The exchange finished and we apologised profusely, still not quite sure why we were being reprimanded so sharply.

In the end, we were not kicked out. But, up until today, we have received neither apologies nor clear explanations about why we were addressed in the terms described above. And the beautiful prints of our Support. Don’t Punish friends simply disappeared. Positively, however, many of us immediately reached out to various government and UN colleagues, all of whom stood ready to come to our defence if measures against us had been taken by UN security. Thanks to them, our colleague who had been escorted out was eventually allowed to come back into the CND – but only 24h later.

As the photo organisers, we are incredibly sorry to our colleagues who participated in the photo and were subjected to such hostility. It goes without saying that this is not what we intended, and we will make sure it does not happen again.

The incident remains an incredibly unsavoury reminder of the limits of civil society participation at the UN – but also that things are changing, with some government officials now ready to come to the help of civil society in moments of need. That said, this unfortunate event reflects the need to continue building relationships with decision-making instances that are truly based on social inclusion and mutual respect.

This 26th of June, for the 2019 Global Day of Action of the Support. Don’t Punish campaign, you could consider organising activities in this sense, to strengthen the links and dialogue between decision-makers and civil society organisations. If you need inspiration, have a look at the campaign’s map of past activities.