Key Points

  • The certification policy has been an ineffective tool for drug control.
  • The certification process is resented in Latin America and elsewhere as a unilateral, sometimes arbitrary and hypocritical exercise by the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs.
  • Repealing the certification process would signal Latin American countries that the U.S. sees them as essential partners in combatting the international drug trade.

In early 1997 and again in 1998, the Clinton administration set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill with its drug certification decisions, which rate the anti-narcotics efforts of other countries. Members of Congress scurried to release ever longer lists of detailed demands on Mexico, and to see who could champion the largest package of arms and training for the military and police in Colombia. We deserve more than a repeat performance from lawmakers in the years ahead.

Congress should end the drug certification requirement. The policy has been an ineffective tool for drug control, and it has undermined other important U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere. Policymakers would do better to abandon the annual exercise of sounding tough and casting blame beyond our borders, and work instead to create more effective multilateral mechanisms for combating the violence and corruption of the drug trade. Most importantly, their focus should be on the real work of reducing the harm and healing the hurt of drug addiction and abuse across the United States.

Enacted by Congress in 1986, the certification process was meant to press the administration to demand tougher counternarcotics measures by other governments. Each year, the administration must produce a list of major drug-producing or drug-transit countries (see list on p. 4). Countries included in the “majors” list–there were 30 this year–face mandatory sanctions unless the administration certifies by the end of February that a country is fully cooperating with U.S. anti-narcotics efforts, or is taking sufficient steps on its own to meet the terms of the 1988 UN drug control convention. The sanctions include the withdrawal of most U.S. foreign assistance not directly related to counternarcotics programs and U.S. opposition to loans those countries seek from multilateral development banks. The administration can also waive sanctions against a country that is not fully certified, if it determines that doing so is in the “vital national interests” of the United States.

Congress has thirty days to attempt to overturn the President’s certification decisions through a resolution of disapproval that must be passed by both the House and Senate, and it is subject to a veto. This “score card” approach is deeply resented in Latin America, where nearly all of the world’s cocaine and an increasing amount of the heroin that ends up on the streets of the U.S. are produced. It is regularly disparaged there and by countries beyond the region as a unilateral, sometimes arbitrary and hypocritical exercise by the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs. These reactions matter. More often than not, the certification process erodes the very sense of common purpose and partnership that must be the foundation of international cooperation on any issue. And the criticisms are shared by a growing number of policymakers in the United States. Mounting evidence shows that even with full-fledged cooperation by Latin American governments, interdiction and source country programs cannot deliver what drug warriors promise. Despite an investment of $25 billion in drug control programs over the past decade and a half, cocaine and heroin are as easily available in the U.S. as they were 15 years ago and at cheaper prices. Meanwhile, the violence and corruption of the international drug trade are damaging economies, judicial systems, and democratic institutions throughout the hemisphere.

Doing away with the certification requirement will not be easy. Many in Congress who acknowledge its shortcomings are reluctant to part with the leverage they believe its gives them, or to appear soft on drugs. But the case is finally being made and is gaining ground. Repealing the process would send a signal that the U.S.–with its $50 billion demand for illicit drugs–sees our Latin American neighbors as essential partners, rather than adversaries, in combating an international drug trade that destroys lives and threatens communities throughout the Americas. It would restore a sense of balance in our debate about policy priorities in the hemisphere. And it would allow us to turn attention to the domestic roots of our drug problems–to preventing and treating drug abuse and addiction in our own backyards.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • Certification is bad drug policy because it sends mixed signals to other countries, it fosters conflict, and it reinforces the focus on the failed source-country control strategy.
  • Certification is bad foreign policy because it holds other priorities such as human rights hostage to the single issue of drug control.
  • Certification distorts our national conversation on foreign policy by focusing media attention and political debate on drugs, obscuring the search for common interests.

Certification is bad drug policy for three reasons. First, it sends mixed signals to other countries about the rewards or punishments for their efforts in the war on drugs. In 1997, for example, revelations of drug corruption at the very top of Mexico’s anti-narcotics agency sparked a spirited campaign by many in Congress to overturn its certification. Despite repeated hearings about the shortcomings in Mexico’s drug control effort, it was clear that the administration and congressional leadership would not permit the country to be decertified because it is a major trading partner. A similar effort was thwarted in 1998. The message sent is that if countries are important enough to other U.S. interests, their drug control performance alone will not be the basis of certification decisions.

Second, while cast as a means to increase cooperation, the process repeatedly fosters conflict. In some cases, reluctant governments have been pushed to crack down on cartels, expand eradication, or permit U.S. ships to pursue traffickers into their territorial waters. But the imposition of such measures comes with a high cost.

Anti-U.S. sentiment is stoked by headlines in newspapers across the region denouncing the hypocrisy of the U.S. for judging the efforts of others to cut off the supply for our insatiable demand. Leaders stepping up to the challenge of drug control are lambasted for yielding to Yankee dictates. Threats of withdrawing cooperation regularly follow the inevitable tensions surrounding the policy. President Zedillo has perhaps been most blunt, in calling the certification process an offense and suggesting that the U.S. be subjected to the same review process.

Third, and most importantly, certification symbolizes and reinforces a misguided broader U.S. international drug control strategy that aims to stop the supply of illegal drugs from entering the United States. The strategy has failed to achieve this goal. As the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded in February 1997: “Despite long-standing efforts and expenditures of billions of dollars, illegal drugs still flood the United States…. Although [efforts by the U.S. and “host countries”] have resulted in some successes… they have not materially reduced the availability of drugs.”

While drug warriors attribute this lack of success to insufficient firepower or failing morality, it is in fact the result of market forces. Selling drugs produces astronomical profits, and even heroically effective eradication and interdiction efforts lead to only marginal and localized increases in drug prices–the variable that supply-siders argue will decrease use. In fact when prices go up and profits for successful traffickers remain high or even rise, it increases the incentives for new growers and traffickers to step in and meet the demand (see FPIF brief, U.S. Drug Control Policy, by Peter Andreas, vol. 1, no. 12).

In addition to being bad drug policy, certification is also bad foreign policy, particularly toward Latin America. The hostility and enmity generated every year by the process strains relations over a wide range of issues and holds other priorities hostage to the single issue of drugs. The minimal but sometimes crucially important commitment of resources and attention that the U.S. makes to human rights, democracy, or civilian control of the military, are overshadowed and sometimes directly undermined by the focus on drugs and the certification exercise.

For example, in the Andean countries U.S. drug policy has overwhelmed human rights concerns. The U.S. set up and funded special courts to deal with both terrorism and drug trafficking that systematically violate internationally recognized norms of due process. The anti-narcotics police forces that the U.S. has created in Bolivia brazenly intimidate, abuse, and torture peasants while carrying out eradication campaigns. And U.S. attacks on Colombia’s elected civilian government over certification and drug corruption strengthened the hand of Colombia’s security forces, despite their deplorable human rights record.

These distorted priorities have also led to skewed budgets. The State Department’s budget for narcotics control programs more than doubled over the last three years to $230 million in 1998, while the Department of Defense spends $1.5 billion annually for interdiction of drugs, much of that in Latin America. At the same time, U.S. development assistance for Latin America and the Caribbean–$293 million for 1998–has been cut more dramatically than aid for any other region of the world.

This is a shortsighted way to respond to the challenges of poverty, lack of opportunity, and weak institutions of civilian governance exploited by drug traffickers. It is also a strategic mistake in our approach to Latin America. Fostering shared prosperity in this hemisphere should be a central goal of U.S. policy because the high levels of poverty and inequality do unacceptable damage to the lives of 200 million people, provoke instability, and undermine support for democracy. And it is important because this region and especially Mexico is so important to the economic well-being of the United States.

Certification also distorts our national conversation on foreign policy toward Latin America. In an era marked by increasingly intimate relationships between this country and Latin America, it would be extremely healthy for the American people to reflect on our nation’s foreign policies in areas that deeply affect our neighbors–like economic development and human rights–and areas that profoundly affect us–like trade, emigration, drugs, crime, and the environment. Yet the incessant concentration of media attention and national political debate on drugs obscures a broader view and a search for common interests and aspirations.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • The U.S. should craft a new drug policy that promotes real partnerships with other countries.
  • The new policy should stem the corrosive effects of the drug trade on democratic institutions throughout the Western Hemisphere.
  • The new policy should embrace the essential principle that U.S. drug control begins at home.

The possibility of abandoning the certification process was finally broached last year when bipartisan legislation was introduced in the Senate to suspend certification for two years while a more constructive, multilateral approach is developed. Although ultimately defeated, it sparked the most serious congressional debate in over a decade on the process itself. For the first time, top Clinton Administration officials–including Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger–went on record opposing certification and favoring creation of a more effective strategy for international cooperation.

This spring, some attention focused on one possible alternative approach. At their summit meeting in Santiago, Chile, this April, the hemisphere’s 34 elected leaders called for the creation of a Multilateral Counterdrug Alliance, to be coordinated by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) of the Organization of American States. The centerpiece of the Alliance is a panel of experts who will carry out multilateral evaluation of countries’ progress in achieving counternarcotics goals. In May, at the first meetings to weigh how to put the plan into practice, McCaffrey voiced the hope that it would prove effective enough to “bury [the] certification process.” But developing the initiative will be difficult, in part because many Latin American countries view the OAS as unduly swayed by the United States. Whether it is successful enough to replace certification, as many hope, rather than run alongside it, as many now assume, depends on how its objectives are defined. If the standard is stopping drug trafficking, or developing a system of sanctions strong enough to give comfort for hardline Republicans in Congress, then it will inevitably fall short.

In the final analysis, the failings of the certification process are too central to its character to be ameliorated through legislative tinkering, and the creation of a multilateral approach through the OAS will be slow and fraught with conflict. Ultimately, the case has to be made and won for the certification process to be set aside–because it is failing to advance our purposes and often does more harm than good–and replaced with a more constructive alternative. Such an alternative would have to meet three requirements.

First, the alternative should create the ground for real partnerships with other countries. This would remove a barrier to cooperation on drug control issues and relax the stranglehold of the drug issue on U.S. relations with Latin America. Efforts to build an active consensus–to develop mutually agreed objectives and design national and international strategies to meet them–will founder if the U.S. approach is to discipline other countries developing innovative harm reduction strategies, or to impose a rigid supply-side model on the rest of the world. A truly multilateral approach will never satisfy hardline drug warriors in the U.S. Congress. But unilateral evaluations and mechanisms, such as the certification process, are neither constructive nor effective.

Second, U.S. policy should emphasize programs to stem the corrosive effects of the drug trade on democratic institutions and societies throughout the Western Hemisphere. Such programs should combat official and private corruption, build effective civilian law enforcement and judicial systems that respect human rights, curb international arms smuggling, and stanch the explosion of international money laundering. The administration should vigorously enforce the new legislation that prohibits our government from providing assistance to units of foreign security forces that violate human rights (see FPIF brief, Colombia, by Carlos M. Salinas, vol. 2, no. 49), and Congress should apply the same human rights conditions to the growing military and assistance programs undertaken by the Pentagon in the name of the drug war. Both the administration and Congress should also strenuously oppose efforts to sideline concerns about human rights or relax the prohibition on aiding abusive forces.

Third, and most important, the alternative policy must embrace the essential principle that U.S. drug control begins at home.

International policies must be crafted with an understanding of the domestic roots of our drug problem and backed by a commitment to take the steps necessary to prevent and treat drug abuse and addiction here at home. In the end, the most important benefit that will come from eventually moving beyond certification will be to remove this yearly distraction-and allow us to face the real challenge of reducing the harm and repairing the damage of drug abuse and addiction in our families and communities.

by Bill Spencer, Deputy Director, Washington Office on Latin America

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.