The United States government may be shunning the United Nations' conference on racism -- irked about pre-conference differences of opinion on issues such as reparations for slavery and Israel -- but the US drug reform movement will be present and will be asking the conference to condemn racism in the drug war.
In an effort led by The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, the Campaign to End Race Discrimination, a coalition of drug reform advocates, has sent a ten-person delegation to Durban, South Africa, where the conference begins on August 31. Led by TLC-DPF Director of Public Policy and Community Outreach Deborah Small, the delegation also includes prominent civil rights lawyer James Ferguson II, the Rev. Edwin Sanders of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, and Alicia Young of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Drug Policy Litigation Project.
"You can't talk about race in the US without talking about the war on drugs," said Small in a pre-departure statement. "This is not a war on drugs. It's a war on people of color. The drug war is one of the most serious obstacles to achieving racial justice in the US and internationally," she added.
The delegation is carrying a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, signed by more than 150 prominent Americans citing the horrific impact of current US drug policy on minorities and asking the UN to condemn what they called racist anti-drug campaigns by the US and other countries.
"In one country after another we see racial and ethnic minorities targeted and persecuted in the name of the 'war on drugs,'" said the letter. "In the United States and many other nations, it is no longer possible to talk honestly and frankly about racism without talking about the 'war on drugs.' This is not a war on plants and chemicals, but on citizens and other human beings who all too often are members of racial and ethnic minorities."
Citing huge racial inequities in incarceration rates among drug offenders and pervasive racial disparities in the US criminal justice system, the letter generously excused those prosecuting the drug war from charges of deliberate racism, but said "all those concerned with the persistence of racism in our societies must turn their attention to the 'war on drugs.'"
Citing the UN Convention to End All Forms of Racism and Discrimination (CERD), to which the US is a signatory and which requires states to avoid practices with racially disparate effects, the letter called on Annan to place the issue on the Durban agenda. It also called on "all member governments of the United Nations -- and most especially the government of the United States as well as those of its fifty states -- to end the 'war on drugs' and remedy its discriminatory and oppressive consequences."
The letter's signers included four members of the US Congress, New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, Nobel economics prize-winner Milton Friedman, former US Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, singer Harry Belafonte, and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner.
Whether the delegation and the letter they carry can force UN discussions on the theme remains to be seen. A spokesman for Annan, Fred Eckhard, told Agence France-Presse earlier this week that the UN had not officially received the letter, but that US incarceration rates had been discussed during a recent CERD meeting in Geneva.
"It's on the agenda of the United Nations," Eckhard said, but it would be up to member states to decide whether to discuss the issue at the Durban conference.
(Visit http://www.drugpolicy.org/news/race_conf.html for the complete text of the letter, list of signatories and further information. Visit http://www.unhchr.ch/html/racism/ for the web site of the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance.)