No booze, no drugs, no fun: the UN today


This is your last drink for tonight, understand?

This was the week the UN stopped being fun.  To start with, the US is trying to stop diplomats turning up at budget debates drunk:

The U.S. ambassador for management and reform at the United Nations, Joseph Torsella, scolded his U.N. colleagues today for excessive drinking during delicate budget negotiations.

The unusual censure reflected lingering American frustration with its counterparts’ conduct in budget negotiations in December, which one U.N.-based diplomat compared to a circus.

“There has always been a good and responsible tradition of a bit of alcohol improving a negotiation, but we’re not talking about a delegate having a nip at the bar,” said the diplomat who recalled one G-77 diplomat fell sick from too much alcohol.

As the United States sought to rally support for a proposal to freeze U.N. staff pay in December, it found that key negotiating partners, particularly delegates from the Group of 77 developing countries, were not showing up for meetings. When they did arrive, they had often been drinking.

“As for the conduct of negotiations, we make the modest proposal that the negotiation rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone,” Torsella said in a meeting of the U.N. membership’s budget committee, known as the Fifth Committee. “While my government is truly grateful for the strategic opportunities presented by some recent practices, lets save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee’s reputation in the process.”

Meanwhile UN officials have been going after weed

A United Nations-based drug agency urged the United States government on Tuesday to challenge the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington, saying the state laws violate international drug treaties.

The International Narcotics Control Board made its appeal in an annual drug report. It called on Washington, D.C., to act to “ensure full compliance with the international drug control treaties on its entire territory.”


Another turbulent week in Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s unluckiest countries. Ravaged by the slave trade, stifled by Portuguese colonisers (when the latter were forced out, only one in 50 Guineans could read), and then saddled with a series of inept, corrupt post-independence leaders, the decision of South American drug traffickers to use its offshore Bijagos islands as a staging post on the cocaine route to Europe was a devastating blow (for analysis of the latter, see here). The advent of the drug gangs brought chaos, as politicians, police and the military jostled for a share of the spoils. The assassination of Nino Vieira, who had ruled the country for much of the last thirty years, was the most visible of its impacts, but the repercussions show no signs of abating.

Last week saw the foiling of an alleged coup attempt by navy chief, Bubo Na Tchuto (for more on his colourful past, see here). Taking advantage of the president, Malam Bacai Sanha, being out of the country for medical treatment, Bubo had apparently resolved to take charge of the country – and by extension the cocaine trade – before army boss and former friend Antonio Indjai could lay his hands on it.

Some observers believe the arrest of Admiral Bubo was a positive development, as he has for long been suspected of being in cahoots with the South Americans (this analysis ignores the possibility that Indjai himself, who two years ago released Bubo from United Nations custody, is similarly implicated). But the death in hospital of Malam Bacai Sanha today has shaken things up yet again. Instead of settling down, there is now likely to be a new tussle for power. Indjai is likely to be either king or kingmaker, the prime minister Carlos Gomes, whom Indjai described two years ago as a “criminal” but who is now seemingly an ally (alliances in the cocaine era are extremely fluid), will want a slice of the pie, and former president, the disastrous Kumba Yala, may make another bid for the top job. The stakes are high, the power struggle unlikely to result in anything resembling stability as long as the traffickers remain in the country. The death of the president could barely have come at a worse time. Once again, fortune has frowned on Guinea-Bissau.


Lifting the lid on the drug trade through West Africa

A trial that has just got under way in New York looks likely to provide some interesting insights into how South American drug traffickers are going about their business in West Africa, which for several years now (as detailed here and here) has been used as a transit point on the cocaine route to Europe and the US.

A prosecution witness in the trial has claimed that Fumbah Sirleaf, son of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former director of Liberia’s National Security Agency, agreed to pose as a corrupt official (not too difficult a disguise for most West African politicians) to help the US Drug Enforcement Agency in a sting operation.

As the Canadian Press reports, Sirleaf and a colleague allegedly met a pair of Colombians representing a South American drug trafficking organisation, and extracted from them a promise to give them $1m and 50 kilos of cocaine in return for letting them use Liberia as a hub. ‘What these defendants did not know,’ said the witness, a DEA agent, ‘was that Liberian officials had not put their country up for sale. The Liberians had been pretending to be corrupt.’ Sirleaf recorded the conversations with the Colombians, and handed the tapes to the DEA. Defence lawyers say their clients were entrapped. Watch this space for updates.

More drug trouble in Guinea-Bissau

Back in January, I posted the text below (I subsequently took it down for re-posting at a later date because of a bizarre and unnerving incident that happened to me in Dakar):

“The airstrip on the island of Bubaque in Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagos archipelago is, appropriately, a white line cut out of the bush, a narrow sandy strip hemmed in on both sides by thick forest. Only small planes can land there, but small planes can carry large quantities of cocaine.

The Guinean government claims that the drug trade through the islands (which South American dealers have adopted as a transit point on the way to the lucrative European market) has abated in recent months. The country’s leaders are reluctant to forfeit European Union aid, so they are keen to show that they are fighting this new scourge.

I spent ten days on Bubaque over the Christmas period and heard a dozen or so planes in the night. More may have arrived while I was asleep. Given that the airstrip sees no commercial traffic, with the islands’ few visitors and provisions being shipped in on pirogues and the weekly ferry from Bissau, the obvious conclusion to draw is that the planes were from Latin America.

Nor are there signs in the capital, Bissau, of any let-up. The city is in the midst of a minor building boom, as smart new villas spring up, with gardens, fences and security guards – all funded, according to locals, by drug money.

But even if it does show resolve, the government’s capacity is limited. Only around twenty of the eighty Bijagos islands are inhabited, so they are extremely difficult to police (more so when your navy has no ships and your air force no planes). And the resourceful South Americans are putting in contingency plans to pre-empt EU and government pressure. Two of them, I was told, recently scoped out a hitherto unused island, posing as tourists and asking villagers if there was an airstrip (there isn’t) or a forest clearing (there is) where they can land small jets or helicopters. But even landing areas are not essential – the traffickers can also drop the drugs into the sea for collection.

In the islands, few are willing to discuss the drug trade – many believe Colombian or Venezuelan drug lords killed their president, Nino Vieira, last year after he failed to pay them for a consignment of cocaine, so they are understandably fearful. But the return to the country of Admiral Bubo has put the cat among the pigeons and sent tremors through the highest levels of government.

Before he fled into exile after a failed attempt to topple Vieira, Admiral Bubo was head of the Guinean navy. This position gave him privileged access to the narco-traffickers, who use boats as well as planes to transport cocaine across the Atlantic. Admiral Bubo therefore knows many things, which is why the government was so keen for the UN to hand him over, which it agreed to do last week. He knows the extent of Nino’s involvement in the trade (some believe the president carried cocaine to Europe himself, taking advantage of his immunity from customs searches). He knows who killed Nino, and whether senior members of the new government are involved in drug trafficking.

But Bubo is playing a dangerous game. Guinea-Bissau has no prisons, so he will either be freed or “disappeared”. It is almost certain that he profited from the drug boom himself, so if the government doesn’t protect him he will be at the mercy of rival navy or army factions and of the Latin Americans. How Bubo is dealt with will be a test case of the government’s seriousness in combating the trade.”

Last Thursday, the Admiral Bubo story took a new twist. Bubo was taken into the protection of a group of soldiers headed by a General Antonio Indjai, who at the same time arrested the Prime Minister, Carlos Gomes, and forty army officers including the army chief, who had opposed Bubo’s release. As Indjai took control of the armed forces, Bubo announced that Gomes is “a criminal who must be judged.”

When news of the PM’s arrest broke, hundreds of Guineans took to the streets to demand his release. The plotters relented, placing him under house arrest instead.

Admiral Bubo, as I suggested in January, was likely to have been implicated in the cocaine trade. Vincent Foucher, a researcher with the Bordeaux-based Centre d’etudes d’Afrique Noire, claimed in this weekend’s Libération newspaper that Carlos Gomes had been trying to sideline General Indjai because of the latter’s involvement in drug trafficking. The alliance between the admiral and the general is not surprising, therefore.

But what of the Prime Minister himself? Vincent Fourcher believes he is taking a strong hand against the narco-traffickers. Bubo, who knows exactly who is involved, argues the opposite. While in Guinea-Bissau myself in December and January, I heard many conflicting opinions over whether or not Gomes was abetting the traffickers – some even believe he had Nino Vieira killed in the turf war for control of the trade.

Whatever the truth, it seems that battle lines are being drawn, with Bubo and Indjai on one side, Gomes on the other. Where the country’s president, Malam Bacai Sanha, stands is not yet clear, and nor, perhaps most crucially for the future of Guinea-Bissau, is the allegiance of the Latin American drug cartels…

How a good outcome might yet be salvaged from the UK drugs row

The row in Britain over the sacking of Professor David Nutt, until last week the head of the head of the government’s Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) shows little sign of abating: two members of the Committee have quit in Nutt’s support, and there’s talk of a mass resignation when the Committee meets on Monday. The reason for all the hoo-hah: Nutt’s public argument in a lecture (and a subsequent article) that the government had overstated the dangers of cannabis (as well as other drugs, like LSD or ecstasy), and that an evidence-based approach that prioritised harm reduction would see tobacco and alcohol as higher priorities.  As he argued in his article,

I think we have to accept young people like to experiment, and what we should be doing is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives. We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. We have to tell them the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source of information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you’re probably wrong.

This was anathema as far as Alan Johnson was concerned, who promptly sacked Nutt on Friday last week, arguing that

Professor Nutt chose, without prior notification to my department, to initiate a debate on drugs policy in the national media … accusing my predecessor or distorting and devaluing scientific research. As a result, I have lost confidence in Professor Nutt’s ability to be my principal adviser on drugs.

More or less the entire UK scientific community is now up in arms about Nutt’s sacking: thus for example Lord Krebs, former head of the Food Standards Agency:

I thought it was an appalling decision and totally inappropriate … it will send shockwaves through the scientific community and make it more difficult for the government to recruit the best people to help with scientific advice to underpin public policy … not one person … has been other than horrified about it and feeling that this called into question the whole validity of the government’s approach to independent scientific advice.

While I don’t disagree with Krebs (and see also this interesting critique of government policy by a former Home Office civil servant), there is one dimension to all this that is inescapably political rather than scientific: the need to provide Alan Johnson with some kind of face-saving exit strategy that also safeguards the place of science in the policymaking process – and, ideally, nudges the UK towards an approach to drugs control that is at least slightly more sane.

Right now, after all, we have a situation in which the Serious Organised Crime Agency trumpets that its work has “sent cocaine prices soaring” – but the actual effect is that dealers’ profit margins are increasing, while the product they sell becomes less pure and more dangerous; in which Portugal’s strategy of decriminalising all drus has proved “a resounding success” according to a recent independent study – but other European governments don’t want to know; and above all, in which countries like Mexico, Guinea-Bissau and Afghanistan carry the can for OECD governments’ refusal to face facts, and slide ever closer to becoming hollowed-out or outright failed states. 

So how to start to reorient drugs policy – given that, as Alan Johnson has just demonstrated so clearly, politicians manifestly feel unwilling or unable to persuade the public of the need for a more rational and effective approach?