Antonio Maria Costa on “Sinister Affairs”

by Asher Kohn on 3/16/2010 · 1 comment

Today I had the opportunity to hear Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) give a short talk on what he does and what he is trying to do. He had lots of interesting things to say (as someone who went to University of Turin, Moscow State, and Cal-Berkeley in the 60s and 70s should) and had the incredible quip of “I lead prosecution against Terrorism, Drugs, Organized Crime, and Corruption. I basically am the United Nations’ point man for Sinister Affairs.” There were lots of good questions and he made lots of good points, and only a few were truly relevant to what we focus on here. I’m going to focus on one of them that I thought was particularly interesting.

One of the main things Mr. Maria Costa brought to light was the connection between drug use and drug abuse and a dearth of what he calls “Palliative Care,” particularly in the developing world. Using Central Asia as an example, it is very difficult to find a clinic or to find basic pain relieving medication in, say, Turkmenistan. It is also very difficult to deal with depression, post-traumatic stress or other similar ailments through legal means. Drug abuse is, in many ways, the only means of relief for anyone without the correct connections, and Turkmenistan’s current tiff with Medecins Sans Frontieres only accentuates that. There isn’t only a deficiency of general medical competency in Turkmenistan, many of the global initiatives go towards issues such as AIDS, landmines, etc. Post-hoc AIDS treatment, though, is far more expensive per-patient than peremptory anti-needle-abuse care. AIDS education on a general level still really really has to happen, though.

Another thing I thought was interesting, from a legal perspective, is the utter lack of jurisdiction over what he termed “sovereign non-state actors.” ISAF, NATO, UN, etc. treat these transnational terrorist groups with a certain amount of respect when they collate every anti-state actor in Afghanistan as “The Insurgency” in the press, but they and we also realize that they aren’t a monolith at all. Perhaps the greatest success of, um, The Insurgency has been its ability to operate extra-judicially. Even bad folks like ETA, the Medellin Cartel, Sendero Luminoso or what have you were able to be targeted in courts of law. Some were able to overcome that (say, by killing judges who held against them) but the judiciary was still able to be implemented as a weapon against the insurgency. In Afghanistan, the judiciary has been impotent for a whole myriad of reasons. It’ll take some clever reformation in order to form a legal basis that will be able to be used against a transnational insurgency…Guantanamo and the ICC aren’t going to cut it.

Finally, the bureaucratic balancing act between fighting drugs and fighting terror is difficult. Real, real, difficult. For every head-slap where folks realize that resource smuggling and drug abuse go hand-in-hand, there are issues where really legitimate medical operations get attacked for their security value. I’m not sure I believe in the existence of a String Theory of violence, state destabilization, and drug trafficking, but I do believe that any state-building solution involves attacking the issue as a whole and not allowing bureaucratic pillow-fights to win the day.

Things are a bit of a mess, yes, but there are some really sharp minds trying to find solutions (Maria Costa, not me). I’d be interested in seeing a more localized form of clinical care get up-and-running where drug abuse is treated as a health risk, not a criminal act. It’s really a place where religious groups could come into play under state control as well, which seems to be a mutually beneficial idea in our region where state secularism clashes against Islamic identity. As for jurisdictional matters, well, let me get a bit more educated first.


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– author of 33 posts on Registan.net.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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{ 1 comment }

DDF March 17, 2010 at 5:58 am

Costa is always a fairly impressive speaker/presenter. However, I would note that it’s not true that pain killers and the like are not widely avialable in Turkmenistan. The health care situation in the country is in shambles, but basic drugs ARE available. This is simply to say that the drug usage problem in TKM is NOT significantly a function of people wanting pain relief . . .

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