The War On Drug Users


The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs met in Vienna last year to review the effectiveness of the last decade of international drug policy. It was agreed unanimously that health should be the motivating factor behind global drug policies, as hardline approaches to tackling illegal narcotics had not only failed but had eroded basic human rights and triggered a spike in HIV/AIDS.

Cambodia never officially declared a "war on drugs" as Vietnam and Thailand did, but its harsh approach to drug users resembled the policies of its neighbours to the west and east. When announcements were made that Cambodia was planning to rehabilitate its drug users instead of jailing them, health advocates praised the government for what looked like a progressive move.

However, while the drug-detention centres were initially viewed as a positive solution, Joe Amon, the Director of the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW) says calls to assist drug users with forced rehabilitation rather than incarceration should be treated with extreme caution.

"In reality, these centres are very prison-like but with the additional problem that … people can be held there without any due process," Amon told "Detainees aren’t seeing a lawyer, there is no judicial authorisation for their detention, they can’t appeal against their detention."

With the release of a damning report titled Skin On The Cable by HRW last week, the Royal Cambodian Government is now facing accusations that drug users forcibly detained in state-run centres are being tortured, with former detainees testifying they were whipped, beaten and chained outdoors for hours in attempts to "cure" them of their dependency.

The allegations again call the Government’s policy of compulsory rehabilitation into question after it was revealed late last year that an untested herbal medication was being trialled on detainees in these centres without their consent.

The HRW report documents the horrific conditions inside these centres, and contains harrowing testimonies from dozens of former detainees about their treatment. HRW has called upon Phnom Penh to permanently close the compulsory drug-treatment centres and implement community-based voluntary programs to assist those with drug problems.

"The report speaks for itself — these are the voices of Cambodians who have been abused, even tortured, in what are supposed to be treatment centres," said Amon. "People described being whipped with electrical cables, beaten, raped or shocked with tasers. There’s nothing therapeutic about these places."

Kronhong, an 18-year-old drug user, told HRW that military police tortured him for two hours while trying to extract a confession, eventually beating him unconscious with a rifle butt. M’noh, a 16-year-old detainee, claimed staff members whipped inmates so fiercely with a cable that their skin peeled off. Minea, a woman in her mid-20s, claims she was robbed during her arrest and then raped by two police officers before being let off without charge.

Drug dependency in Cambodia is viewed as a "moral weakness", explains Graham Shaw, a technical officer with the World Health Organisation (WHO). Despite WHO’s description of dependency as a "chronic, relapsing brain disease," detainees are often declared "cured" after a couple of months in these centres simply because the drugs are no longer present in the body.

Lobbying the Government to develop voluntary treatment facilities such as methadone clinics instead of harsh compulsory "rehabilitation" centres has been an uphill battle. HRW argues there is no evidence that forcing drug users into these centres for military-style drills and hard labour has actually reduced the number of Cambodians consuming narcotics.

"’Treatment’ requires locking people up, forcing them to sweat to remove drugs from their systems and beating them to strengthen their resolve to stay off drugs," said Amon. "They were forced to work and exercise to the point of collapse, even when they were sick and malnourished."

Watchdogs allege that Cambodia’s respect for human rights deteriorated significantly in 2009, a major setback for the country as it continues its transition towards a more open and transparent democracy. Along with the forced detention of more than 2000 drug users in state-run centres, areas of concern include refugee abuses, judicial corruption and the continuing decline of press freedom.

While the Government’s National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) said that the planned expansion of compulsory detention centres would incorporate human rights principles, critics claim the facilities violate Cambodia’s constitutional and international obligations.

Holly Bradford, from a Cambodian harm reduction program called Korsang, said that studies have repeatedly shown that forced detention is not only unlawful, it simply does not work.

"The main concern is that they are illegal. People are forced to go there without due process. If Cambodia had proper, ethical drug treatment, drug users would not need to be forced to go — they would be lining up at the door begging to get in," Bradford said.

Under Cambodia’s existing drugs law, there are a number of ways a drug user can be forced to attend treatment centres — regardless of whether they consent or not. Critics of compulsory detention claim this law is too broad and open to abuse and does not protect human rights standards, nor does it consider whether rehabilitation is in the best interests of the patient.

"The focus is not on health but on detention," Shaw said. "It is becoming increasingly apparent that these centres may in fact be making the situation worse."

With assistance from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Cambodia, the Government is currently finalising a new law on drug control. In terms of the provisions on compulsory treatment, the amended law is virtually no different from the existing one. Amon claims the UNODC’s involvement in the new draft law "is a scandal" as it contains almost no protections against ongoing abuses and arbitrary detention and still makes detaining an individual far too easy.

"What [the draft law]does do, shockingly, is eliminate criminal liability for those that run these centres, ensuring that abuses can continue with impunity," Amon said. "UN agencies in Cambodia need to speak out more forcefully with the Government and say plainly that these centres are outside of Cambodian and international human rights law and that they need to be shut down. (Representatives from the UNODC in Cambodia could not be reached for comment in time for publication.)

According to HRW, only around 1 or 2 per cent of those detained enter the centres voluntarily, with more than half admitted by their families. Alarmingly, nearly one in four detainees is under 18.

Recent investigations into the facilities also found that police were arbitrarily arresting and detaining other people deemed "undesirable" — such as street children, the mentally ill and gamblers. In the lead up to major holidays or international events, the police conduct sweeps throughout major cities to round up such people. The Deputy Governor of a district in Phnom Penh justified the action when he said in May 2009, "we collected them in order to keep the city clean."

The Cambodian Government, while calling last year’s HRW reports  insulting, has begun to acknowledge problems in the centres and the need to develop alternatives, even flagging the introduction of a pilot methadone program. On 19 January 2010, the Chairman of the NACD surprisingly announced before UN representatives that the Government planned to shut all but one of its drug rehabilitation centres by 2015 and replace them with community-based alternatives nationwide.

Calling the move "a most welcome step forward", and claiming Cambodia could become "one of the leading examples" of voluntary treatment in the next few years, Graham Shaw says only time will tell whether this declaration will replace past promises to dramatically expand the program. In June 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for greater financial contributions to develop drug centres further, and already a massive project is underway to build a large-scale detainment facility. The question now being asked is whether the government will crack down on those responsible for past abuses inside the centres.

"The government might try to dismiss or minimise our findings," Amon said, "but the facts remain and the Government should conduct its own investigation and hold those responsible for the abuses we documented accountable."

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