By Kathleen Kingsbury, Open Society Foundations

In mid-July, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen approved a controversial new drug law that opens the door to rampant human rights violations. The legislation, which is expected to be signed into law within the next few weeks, will force drug users in the Asian nation into involuntary treatment for up to two years. Most of those who are detained will find themselves in facilities where detainees report that beatings, forced labor, and rape are commonplace.

Beyond compulsory treatment, other troubling provisions in the law include one that defines a drug addict as any person who “consumes drugs and is under the influence of drugs.”  Moreover, two of the most effective public health interventions for drug users—harm reduction and needle-exchange programs—are not protected from prosecution.

Government officials in Cambodia have argued the country needs tough policies to curb drug use, but human rights groups have roundly criticized the new law as draconian and abusive. In the interview below, Phnom Penh-based human-rights research consultant Sara Bradford weighs in on what she sees as the new law’s potential impact and what steps critics can take next.

What will be the most immediate impact of the new reforms?

There are a few notable impacts that I think we will see once the law is passed.  The law is heavily focused on cracking down on personal drug use with the intention of sending users to compulsory treatment centers (CTC). This is already a common practice for the government here, and these centers are nothing more than places of arbitrary detention where drug users face extensive human rights abuses. Under the most recent available draft of the new drug law (November 2010), impunity is given to officials working within the CTCs, which will allow such abuses to continue, unabated

Currently, despite constitutionally given rights, there is no due process for those being sent to CTCs, drug users are arbitrarily arrested and sent directly to CTCs having never seen a courtroom. While the new law does define a judicial process, this is only legalizing the draconian processes which are already in practice and have been widely condemned by rights groups and the UN.

And what longer-term ramifications can drug users expect?

Currently, the average time a drug user spends in a CTC is three months, but the new law defines the detention period as six months to two years.  This far exceeds international treatment standards and best practices. Moreover, detention periods are not based on the nature of a crime but will seemingly be at the whim of the court to decide how long someone is locked away.

The law also allows for the extradition of non-citizens who commit drug crimes. Cambodia does not currently have the death penalty but with extradition agreements in place with countries such as China and Malaysia it is possible, and likely that at some point, someone will be sentenced to execution as a result if committing a drug crime in Cambodia.

Cambodia has been repeatedly criticized for its abusive drug detention centers. Under this new legislation, should we expect to see an even greater proliferation of such facilities? Why?

The Cambodian government has, in the past year, repeatedly stated that they plan to close all but one of their 14 CTCs. The CTC they plan on keeping open is still in its construction phase with an expected completion date of late 2012; it is expected to have a capacity of 2,000 inmates. The center, which the Cambodian government is referring to as a “center of excellence,” is being built in Sihanoukville, a southern port city in Cambodia, and its construction is being funded by Vietnam.

There are a number of concerns surrounding this center. First, its close proximity to ports and palm oil plantations are feared to be an indication of increased forced labor practices. The new law invites “contributions from various contributors to support [treatment center] operations” thus allowing private sources to become stakeholders in the CTCs and opening the door for such sources to have interests in benefiting from forced labor practices.

Additionally, with reference to the government’s plan to close all but one of the centers, this has not been the case so far. In May 2011 the government, with a donation from the Development and Investment Bank of Vietnam, opened the first women’s only CTC in the country. Prior to this, women were not detained in compulsory settings. The new women’s unit has a capacity of 100 people and as of June 2011, 12 women were being detained there.

The government also plans to re-open Chom Chao, a center which was formerly a “Youth Rehabilitation Center,” run by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Chom Chao was closed after a scathing report detailing abuses within the center was released by Human Rights Watch in early 2010.

There is currently a sub-decree defining the new organizational structure for Chom Chao’s re-opening as the “Interim National Rehabilitation and Treatment Center of Excellence.” Chom Chao has yet to be re-opened, and it is rumored that the government is waiting on an allotment of funds from Vietnam, to the tune of $46 million, before re-opening the center.

Many groups asked the government to consider changes to the draft legislation that were not made. In your mind, what would a better alternative law have looked like?

In all honesty, this law is such a complete failure as a piece of legislation, especially from a human rights perspective, that nothing short of a complete rewrite would make it acceptable. The current draft echoes the ineffective and abusive policies of Cambodia’s neighboring countries, Vietnam and Thailand, as well as taking on a U.S. “war on drugs” approach – which has never proven to be successful.

This law will only serve as a mechanism to enhance Cambodia’s already atrocious human rights record and by passing it lawmakers are demonstrating their lack of commitment to human rights as well as their acquiescence to the outdated and ineffective policies of donor countries and organizations.

How should harm reduction groups, for instance, advise those who participate in their programs on what this new law could mean for them?

I think it will be crucial for NGOs working with drug users to review the law closely and inform their participants of what their rights are within the law, specifically due process – something  many drug users have never had the opportunity to experience.

Additionally, there are provisions which criminalize behaviors which were not formerly seen as offenses. For example, Article 59, “the offense of joining a criminal group” is defined as “The criminal group is a group comprised from 3 persons which is established ... formal or informal in order to commit the offense as provided in this law.”  This particular article undermines harm reduction basics such as urging individuals not to use drugs alone. Under this article, anyone who uses drugs within a group is subjected to a double penalty.

For activists who are concerned by these reforms, what should be their next steps?

The possibility of any policy reform is dependent on persistent advocacy  Applying continuous pressure on the government through any and all means possible is imperative in working towards the implementation of rights based policies which adhere to best practice approaches and meet international standards.

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