Violent abuse in drug treatment centers continues in Cambodia

Friday, February 26, 2010

Glue sniffing is the preferred substance of abuse for children in Cambodia (Photo credit: Creative Commons)

By Rachel Pollock

25 February 2010 [MediaGlobal]: In response to a recent Human Rights Watch report on violent abuse in drug treatment centers in Cambodia, human rights activists are urging United Nations agencies to speak out on the issue. On 16 February 2010, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Phnom Penh issued a report stating that the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has requested that UN Country Team in Cambodia support a provision that would limit the number of compulsory treatment centers in Cambodia by 2015. The RGC is currently working on a proposal to provide community-based drug treatment centers in the Cambodian communities. While progress is encouraging, several UN organizations are still denying these claims of violent abuse and continue to provide monetary support for these drug treatment centers.

Last month Human Rights Watch issued a 93-page report on the atrocities being committed in drug detention centers in Cambodia. The report outlined torture in the form of beatings, whippings and electric shock in 11 drug treatment centers in Cambodia. Drug dependence in Cambodia has seen a dramatic increase over the last decade with the escalating rates of methamphetamine use and the increasing number of children addicted to drugs. Exact figures for drug prevalence in Cambodia differ greatly among UN agencies and government organizations, but the UNODC estimates that 4 percent of the entire population suffers from drug addiction, which is approximately 500,000 people.

David Harding, who is the drug specialist for the NGO Friends International, told MediaGlobal, “The impact on individuals using illicit drugs, most especially [on] socio-economic and health [factors] (including HIV) has been compounded by the slow response in providing services in prevention and risk reduction.” The National Authority for Combating Drugs in Cambodia has reported that children under the age of 18 accounted for 24 percent of drug prevalence. Furthermore, 2,382 people were detained in 2008, which is a 40 percent increase from the year before. Of this population, only 1 percent checked into health facilities voluntarily.

Drug detention centers in Cambodia are run by military police and often detain not only drug users, but also the mentally ill, street kids, homeless people, and even gamblers. Joe Amon, who is the director of the Health and Human Rights Division of the HRW told MediaGlobal, “There is a simplistic understanding of drug dependence in Cambodia: drug dependence is equated with moral weakness. Hence ‘treatment’ requires locking people up, forcing them to sweat to remove drugs from their system and beating them to strengthen their resolve to stay off drugs.” The Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak told the press that drug abusers “need to do labor and hard work and sweating – that is one of the main ways to make drug-addicted people become normal people.”

While the societal perception of drug addiction in Cambodia is quite different than in other parts of the world, many of the people that enter drug rehabilitation centers have no clinical need for drug abuse treatment. Amon told MediaGlobal, “In practice, the government drug detention centers also function as a convenient means of removing people with apparent mental illnesses from the general community. As with the detention of street children and homeless people, the detention of the mentally ill appears driven by the government’s desire to keep the streets clean. This illegal detention is an abuse of their rights in and of itself, but it also exposes such people to acts of cruelty by center staff.”

Since the media attention brought about by the HRW report, several United Nations agencies are taking the issue of mental rehabilitation in Cambodia very seriously. Organizations like UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) have spoken out publicly on the matter. However, organizations that work closely with the Cambodian government such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UNODC have been reluctant to take any drastic measures in preventing the abuse.


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