Assistant Secretary General Speech


April 29, 2019 - Washington, DC

A pleasant good afternoon and welcome to the Organization of American States,

As key partners of the OAS in addressing the drug problem in the Americas, we are proud to provide a space here in the Hall of the Americas for Church World Service to launch their report, “Childhood that Matters: The Impact of Drug Policies on Children and Adolescents with Imprisoned Mothers and Fathers in Latin America and the Caribbean,” an issue that has been of concern to the Member States of this Organization for many years.

After 50 years of the so-called "war on drugs," and its foreseen and unforeseen consequences, in recent years several of the leaders of our hemisphere have called on the international community to rethink the world's drug policies. This has prompted a dialogue on how to promote a comprehensive and humane approach to this problem, which has at its center respect for human rights.

The OAS has been at the forefront of this dialogue, and the work of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), as well as other entities of the OAS such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM), have contributed to enriching the dialogue by including perspectives on gender equality and human rights.

In this context, an increasing number of countries have undertaken legal, policy and programmatic reforms to, on the one hand, reduce the demand and production of illicit substances and, on the other hand, provide a better response to the people who, for multiple reasons, are involved in the commercialization of these substances.

Several of these incipient practices already exist throughout the region – ranging from initiatives to decriminalize marijuana to amnesty or the reduction of sentences for people incarcerated for low-level, non-violent drug-related crimes.

The central question that we must contemplate is how to rethink the international agenda for the control of drugs - which despite the evidence of its ineffectiveness still prioritizes a prohibitive and punitive model that contributes to insecurity, the overpopulation of our prisons, and the general deterioration of our societies. In these instances, the most vulnerable of our populations have suffered the greatest burden.

Far from reducing the global prevalence of drug use and the impact of drug trafficking, this approach has for the most part exacerbated the negative effects of the production and commercialization of drugs by increasing violence and marginalizing populations affected by drug-related violence.

The predominant use of criminal law to counteract the production, distribution, trafficking and in many cases the use of drugs has had a minimal impact in terms of the de-structuring of criminal organizations dedicated to drug trafficking and has only led to prison overpopulation. Generally, incarcerated persons are minor offenders who come from contexts of high vulnerability - and incarceration only serves to aggravate these conditions of social exclusion.

The Technical Report on Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug Related Crimes published by CICAD in 2015 shows an increase in the hemisphere of the population imprisoned for drug-related crimes, as well as an increase in the duration of sentences and criminalized behaviors associated with drugs. An analysis of this situation from a gender perspective reveals a dramatic increase in imprisonment of women for drug-related crimes and the severity of the negative side effects of these policies on families and societies. The report, "Women and Drugs in the Americas: A Working Policy Paper," published in 2014 by the Inter-American Commission of Women, highlights that an estimated 70% of women prisoners in the Americas - many of them heads of households - are in jail due to non-violent crimes like micro-trafficking.

The report also shows that the majority of women involved in drugs are at the lowest level of the criminal chain, that is, in distribution and micro-trafficking - whether as small vendors, mules or entering drugs into penitentiary centres. In general, they come from situations of social marginalization and, frequently, of social and/or domestic violence. They are young, poor, illiterate or with very little schooling, and are single mothers responsible for the care of their children and other family members. We certainly do not condone criminal behavior but we must be aware of the socio-economic conditions that serve to perpetuate these illicit activities.

The impact of these punitive drug policies on children is what brings us together today. Children and adolescents with imprisoned mothers and fathers are a reality in all countries where there are people who have been deprived of liberty and basic human rights. At the global level, approximately 10.35 million people are in prison, therefore, there are in turn millions of children who share in some way the imprisonment of their parents – either living in prison, mainly with their mothers; traveling to live with a relative or in an institution; or living abroad – the latter being the majority group.

These children are considered the collateral, invisible or forgotten victims of the criminal justice system. Available studies show that imprisonment can have complex impacts on child development – which depend on a number of factors, including the individual characteristics, family and community groups available to children, and other factors linked mainly to the design and operation of penal systems, duration of sentences and conditions of imprisonment.

The impact of incarceration is also marked by gender bias. The majority of the people deprived of liberty worldwide are men, which means that women are in charge of family and economic responsibilities, including the sustenance and development of their children. Incarceration of mothers on the other hand can have a greater impact for different reasons. It is imperative that we examine this issue from a holistic perspective and bear in mind the attendant effects of our drug policies on our youth. Here at the OAS we will continue to collaborate with strategic partners in researching and exploring this phenomenon in our hemisphere.

These are just some of the issues that we will be exploring in today’s round-table. I would like to close by thanking our partners for organizing today’s event – Church World Service and the Washington Office on Latin America – and I hope that today’s dialogue will serve to strengthen both our collaboration and our approach to the issue of drugs in the Americas.

Thank you.