Achievements of the United Nations Opium Conference

Abstract

The results of the United Nations Opium Conference held in May and June 1953 may be assessed both in relation to the situation resulting from nearly half a century of international endeavour in the field of narcotics control and in relation to what it is practical to accomplish at this moment in international affairs. The narcotics conventions adopted under the auspices of the League of Nations represented a great stride in international co-operation. International machinery was established and operated effectively to watch continuously the course of lawful international trade and of the illicit traffic. Treaty provisions came into force to limit the manufacture and regulate the distribution of narcotics. Most of the countries of the world chiefly concerned, whether as producers, manufacturers or victim countries, bound themselves to enact complementary national legislation and to regulate manufacture and distribution. There followed dramatic reductions in the quantities of narcotics moving in many traditional channels of traffic. However, the League conventions did not constitute a legal obligation to limit the production of opium, coca leaves and cannabis to medical and scientific needs. This was a serious gap in the system because a considerable part of the existing production continued to flow into the illicit trade and also to become available to clandestine manufacturers. In this period, however, all attempts to secure limitation of production of raw materials failed.

Details

Author: Auguste Lindt
Pages: 46 to 48
Creation Date: 1953/01/01

Achievements of the United Nations Opium Conference

Dr. Auguste Lindt President of the United Nations Opium Conference, Permanent Observer of Switzerland to the United Nations

The results of the United Nations Opium Conference held in May and June 1953 may be assessed both in relation to the situation resulting from nearly half a century of international endeavour in the field of narcotics control and in relation to what it is practical to accomplish at this moment in international affairs. The narcotics conventions adopted under the auspices of the League of Nations represented a great stride in international co-operation. International machinery was established and operated effectively to watch continuously the course of lawful international trade and of the illicit traffic. Treaty provisions came into force to limit the manufacture and regulate the distribution of narcotics. Most of the countries of the world chiefly concerned, whether as producers, manufacturers or victim countries, bound themselves to enact complementary national legislation and to regulate manufacture and distribution. There followed dramatic reductions in the quantities of narcotics moving in many traditional channels of traffic. However, the League conventions did not constitute a legal obligation to limit the production of opium, coca leaves and cannabis to medical and scientific needs. This was a serious gap in the system because a considerable part of the existing production continued to flow into the illicit trade and also to become available to clandestine manufacturers. In this period, however, all attempts to secure limitation of production of raw materials failed.

When the United Nations took up the whole question after World War II, the illicit traffic was flowing at a high level. It is true that the war had broken up some trade routes, where the frontier of the embattled alliances lay across them; in other areas, the breakdown of internal controls had allowed smuggling to flourish freely. Although new synthetics were being produced in increasing quantities, opium, together with its derivatives, morphine, codeine and heroin, continued to be the most important drug in use in the world for both medical and for illegal purposes. Thus the question of the limitation of the production of raw opium presented itself to the United Nations as one of the most pressing questions, together with the need for bringing the new synthetics under control and the re-establishment in full vigour of direct countermeasures against the illicit traffic.

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs took up the question of a very radical solution, namely, the creation of an international opium monopoly which would have been the only agency authorized to buy and sell opium for international trade. After many conferences, however, at which this proposal was very fully and carefully considered, the Commission and the Economic and Social Council came to the conclusion that the present world situation was not favourable to such a solution, and came forth with a scheme for limiting the production of opium by indirect means. It was this latter plan which the United Nations Opium Conference had to discuss.

Left to right: Mr. Dragan Nikolic (Yugoslavia), Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Conference; Dr. Auguste Lindt (Switzerland) President of the Conference; Mr. Charles Vaille (France), Chairman of the Main Committee of the Conference.

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The Protocol adopted by the Conference is based on two guiding ideas:

  1. Free trade in opium should be maintained in so far as this is compatible with the limitation of production and with the maintenance of effective government control;

  2. The methods applied for controlling the manufacture of, and trade in manufactured narcotic drugs should also be applied to opium in so far as this is consistent with the nature of opium as an agricultural product.

The provisions of the Protocol may be summed up as follows:

  1. The production of opium would be limited with a view to reducing the amounts harvested to the amounts needed to achieve this aim. Different levels of maximum opium stocks are set depending on the position of a State as exporter of opium produced in its territory, as manufacturer or importer of narcotic drugs. Each State would be required not to hold opium stocks in excess of a specified maximum amount. The maximum amount would in the case of the opium-exporting countries, listed in the paragraph following, be equal to two and a half years' requirements for manufacture of opium alkaloids and export of opium, in the case of any other country, which manufactures opium alkaloids to its "normal" requirements for a period of two years, and in the case of all the other countries to the total amount of opium consumed during the preceding five years. Opium held by, or under the control of the government for military purposes, would not be considered in the computation of these maxima.

  2. The number of States which would be permitted to export opium produced in their own territories would be limited to seven, i.e., Bulgaria, Greece, India, Iran, Turkey, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Yugoslavia. Each country would be authorized to produce opium for its domestic needs.

  3. The use of opium would be limited to medical and scientific needs. The Protocol provides, however, for temporary exceptions in favour of countries which do not have sufficient medical facilities and which permit the use of opium without medical assistance mainly for the relief of pain (quasi-medical use of opium). A time limit of fifteen years is set after which such use of opium would have to be discontinued. The Protocol would also permit opium-smoking by people, not minors, who are addicted to this practice and who would be registered to this end on 30 September 1953.

  4. The Protocol provides for control measures as follows:

    1. On the national level: Governments which would permit the cultivation of the opium poppy for the production of opium would be required to establish a governmental machinery which would amount to a national monopoly of the production of, and international and wholesale trade in opium. Only licensed farmers would be permitted to cultivate the poppy for the production of opium. Each licence would fix the acreage on which such cultivation is permitted. States which permit the cultivation of the poppy for other purposes than for the production of opium (e.g., for seeds or oil) would be called upon to ensure that opium is not produced from such poppies and that the extraction of alkaloids from poppy straw is adequately controlled. All governments would be required to apply the import certificate and export authorization system to opium and not to permit the import of opium from States not parties to the Protocol.

    2. On the international level: A system of estimates of the area to be cultivated with the opium poppy for the production of opium, of the opium harvest and opium requirements should enable the Drug Supervisory Body, established under the Geneva Convention of 1931, to advise the governments concerned as to the desirable size of the opium crop and thus as to the acreage to be cultivated. A system of statistical returns would in addition enable the Permanent Central Opium Board to supervise the execution, by governments, of important provisions of the Protocol. If the Board has reasons to assume that a gravely unsatisfactory opium situation exists in a country, it would also be authorized to arrange a local inquiry, but only with the express consent of the government concerned. In general, the execution of the Protocol relies on the good faith of the Parties and on the strength of public opinion resulting from criticism by the Board. In very extreme cases the Board would, however, be authorized to recommend or impose an import and/or export embargo on opium. The rights of the country concerned are protected by procedural guarantees such as the right to be heard, and in the case of the imposition of an embargo, by the right of appeal to a special appeal body to be appointed by the President of the International Court of Justice.

  5. The Protocol adopts, in agreement with the existing narcotics conventions, the principle of universality. In respect of States not parties to the Protocol or of territories to which the Protocol would not apply, the Permanent Central Opium Board would accordingly be authorized to adopt measures provided for in the Protocol and intended to appeal to public opinion and, in the very extreme cases referred to above, to recommend or impose an embargo on the import and/or export of opium and opium derivatives.

Left: Mr. E. S. Krishnamoorthy, representative of India, signs the Protocol on behalf of his country. Right: Mr. Harry J. Anslinger, representative of the United States, signs the Protocol on behalf of his country.

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It seems to me that the countries which supported it can thus fairly sustain the following positive claims for the Protocol:

  1. It is the first international treaty aimed at the limitation of production.

  2. It contains the important declaration of the principle: "The Parties shall limit the use of opium exclusively to medical and scientific needs".

  3. There are important provisions for strengthening national control in countries which produce opium.

  4. As regards international enforcement, the principle of a local inquiry (with the consent of the government concerned) is included, as is also the severe eventual sanction of a mandatory embargo (subject to appeal) on imports and exports of opium.

  5. It contains a new type form of territorial application clause which, embodying a compromise between States which have and States which do not have dependent territories, should enable it to be applied without substantial delay in almost all territories of the world.

It is, of course, true that some of these provisions do not go so far as many would have wished. In particular, the provisions regarding "regulation" of production are considerably stronger than those of "limitation", and it is to be hoped that it will be possible to reduce further in the future the maximum stocks of opium in the world.

But in international conferences of this kind it is always necessary to strike a balance between the ideal and the necessity of obtaining sufficient signatures to bring the resulting treaty into force; and it seem s to me that the Protocol embraced the greatest possible measure of agreement obtainable at the present moment. In conception, it is an interim Protocol on which further progress may be based. Throughout the history of the international conventions on narcotics the level of support and compliance has depended on public opinion backing up the principles of the conventions, quite as much or more as on the details of their mechanics, and this Protocol was framed in full recognition of the force of public opinion. In this way, the Protocol is capable of making a very useful contribution to the international control system.