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Issues: Backgrounder: Drug Certification Process

Washington -- The U.S. State Department issues February 27 its annual report on drug production worldwide and the efforts being made by individual countries to suppress the narcotics trade.

The reports are mandated by legislation passed initially by Congress in 1986, out of concern at the time that the executive branch was not being tough enough in eliciting cooperation in the anti-narcotics effort from the major illegal drug-producing and drug-transit countries.

The legislation as it now stands gives the U.S. government the equivalent of an international spotlight to focus on major drug-related countries: the drug certification process. Every year the president must certify, based largely on the findings in the annual report, whether each major drug producing or transit country has cooperated fully with the United States or has taken adequate steps on its own to meet the goals and objectives of the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

Though denial of certification carries important foreign assistance sanctions, as well as a mandatory negative U.S. vote against lending by six multilateral development banks, the potential material losses are often less important than the public opprobrium of failing the standard. The last thing any government wants impugned before its international peers is its honor or integrity, especially when it must publicly confront objective, if often damaging evidence that it has not cooperated fully in countering the drug trade. Most governments now realize that every year the president of United States is legally bound to make such a public assessment. And most know that the nature of that assessment depends largely on their efforts during the year.

The drug certification process has been very effective in recent years. By working with the principal countries concerned to establish realistic benchmarks through periodic reviews, the United States has been able to provide honest assessments of cooperation. Where appropriate, achievement has been recognized, poor cooperation criticized. The remarkable improvement in cooperation levels in recent years underscores the importance of holding countries publicly responsible for their actions before their international peers. Such public diplomacy makes it impossible for the drug trade to hide behind the polite formalities of traditional bilateral diplomacy. As uncomfortable or embarrassing as some countries may find this process in the short term, the U.S. government believe that over time such openness will severely curtail the influence of the drug trade by eliminating the corruption that nourishes it.

At the core of the struggle against the drug trade is the battle against corruption. Drugs are primarily a means to make vast sums of money. Gram for gram there is no more lucrative commodity than drugs. Substances that are relatively cheap to produce generate criminal revenues on a scale that has no historical precedent.

With huge resources at their command, large trafficking organizations have an almost unlimited capacity to corrupt. The more entrenched the drug organization, the better its chances to corrupt. The fear, of course, is that one day traffickers could simply control governments through elected officials who actually owe their office to drug syndicates. While this has not happened in recent times, there have been some disturbing near misses. The drug trade can be expected to keep pressing at every opportunity, since its survival depends upon the right combination of government impotence, neglect, and complicity that corruption feasts upon.

The 1997 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) is the eleventh annual report in the series. The report provides the factual basis for the presidential narcotics certification determinations. The law requires that fifty percent of certain kinds of U.S. assistance to the major drug producing and/or drug-transit countries be withheld at the start of each fiscal year, pending the president's certification determinations. If a country is certified, all aid that has been withheld is released. If a country is not certified, most foreign assistance is cut off and the United States is required to vote against multilateral development bank lending to that country. Types of aid affected include sales and financing under the Arms Export Control Act, non-food assistance under Public Law 480, financing by the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and most other foreign assistance, with the exception of specified types of humanitarian and counternarcotics assistance. The president also has the option of imposing trade and other economic sanctions on countries not certified.

If a country has not met the standards for full certification, the president nevertheless may certify it if he determines that U.S. vital national interests require that bilateral or multilateral assistance not be withheld. When a country receives a vital national interests certification, assistance is provided in the same manner as if it had been given full certification.

Although the U.N. Convention does not contain a list of goals and objectives, it does set forth a number of obligations that the parties agree to undertake. Generally speaking, it requires the parties to take legal measures to outlaw and punish all forms of illicit drug production, trafficking, and drug money laundering, to control chemicals that can be used to process illicit drugs, and to cooperate in international efforts to these ends. The U.S. law lists action by foreign countries on the following issues as relevant to evaluating performance under the U.N. Convention: illicit cultivation, production, distribution, sale, transport and financing, and money laundering, asset seizure, extradition, mutual legal assistance, law enforcement and transit cooperation, precursor chemical control, and demand reduction.

In attempting to evaluate whether countries are meeting the goals and objectives of the U.N. Convention, the State Department has used the best information it has available. The 1997 INCSR covers countries that range from major drug producing and drug-transit countries, where drug control is a critical element of national policy, to mini-states, where drug issues and/or the capacity to deal with them are minimal.

The country chapters report upon actions, including plans, programs, and, where applicable, timetables toward fulfillment of Convention obligations. Because the U.N. Convention's subject matter is so broad, and availability of information on elements related to performance under the Convention varies widely within and between countries, the Department's views on the extent to which a given country is meeting the goals and objectives of the Convention are based on the overall response of the country to those goals and objectives.