The U.S. Can Still Correct its Position on Bolivia's UN Coca Chewing Amendment

Civil Society Letter to Secretary of State Clinton Requests that U.S. Government Withdraw its Objection to Bolivia's Proposal
Press release
Frtiday, January 28, 2011

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Andean Information Network (AIN), and more than 200 other concerned organizations and individuals yesterday sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling for the Obama administration to immediately withdraw its objection to Bolivia’s proposed amendment to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

If approved, Bolivia’s proposal would remove the 1961 Convention’s stipulation that Andean countries ban their citizens from chewing coca leaves.  Coca chewing is central to the cultural identity of millions of indigenous Andean people, and has been used for religious, social, medicinal and nutritional purposes for many centuries.

Bolivia’s amendment would be approved automatically if no governments register objections with the United Nations by next Monday, January 31.  Unfortunately, last week the Obama administration formally objected to Bolivia’s proposal.

Paradoxically, the U.S. government publicly recognizes – in the words of yesterday’s statement from the U.S. Embassy in La Paz – that “coca-chewing is a traditional custom in Bolivian culture,” but nevertheless opposes Bolivia’s proposed amendment “based on the importance of maintaining the integrity of the 1961 Convention.”

The 1961 prohibition of coca chewing was based on a 1950 report that has been thoroughly debunked by scientific studies.  Research shows that consumption of the coca leaf in its natural state is a benign practice that provides positive medical, nutritional and social benefits.  “If the Obama administration is genuinely interested in the ‘integrity’ of the 1961 Convention, it will move promptly drop its invalid objection to Bolivia’s proposed amendment,” asserts AIN Director Kathryn Ledebur.

By wielding its significant influence to maintain the prohibition on coca chewing, the Obama administration would be perpetuating a historical rejection of the rights of indigenous peoples to practice their cultural heritage.  Such a stance would starkly contradict President Obama’s December 2010 announcement of U.S. support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  The Declaration states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.”

U.S. opposition to Bolivia’s amendment would also leave the Obama administration badly out of step with countries throughout Latin America.  “The Obama administration can still correct its mistake before it’s too late,” said WOLA Senior Associate John Walsh“Withdrawal of U.S. opposition to Bolivia’s proposal would be welcomed in the region as a tangible sign of U.S. support for indigenous rights and willingness to work cooperatively with Andean nations as equals on drug control policy.”



Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Kristel Mucino
Communications Coordinator
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Andean Information Network (AIN)
Kathryn Ledebur
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