Human Rights Watch: Press Government to Investigate, Close Down Abusive Programs, Hold Torturers Accountable

(New York) - The United Nations should conduct a thorough review of its support for Cambodia's drug detention centers, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch issued a 93-page report, "Skin on the Cable," on January 25, 2010, with reports of widespread beatings, whippings, and electric shock to detainees, including children and individuals with mental disabilities, in seven Cambodian drug detention centers. In response, several United Nations agencies, including the joint UN program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO), have spoken out about the abuses. But the two UN agencies that work most closely with the government in detention centers and on drug policy, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), have been less vocal.

"UN officials agree that these centers are illegal and abusive," said Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. "Now UNICEF and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime need to make clear to the Cambodian government that the centers should be shut down."

The Cambodian government is in the process of finalizing a new law on drug control, with technical support from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. But the draft law, a copy of which was obtained by Human Rights Watch, does not provide adequate protection against abuse for children and adults forcibly detained under the guise of providing them with treatment for drug dependency.

In particular, the draft law purports to offer immunity from prosecution to "officers who implement drug treatment and rehabilitation measures in accordance with the right to drug treatment." International law does not permit immunity for officials who commit serious abuses - including ill-treatment and torture - in the course of their duties.

"The UN agency responsible for drug control should forcefully oppose any laws that do not meet international standards," Amon said. "The draft law on drug control would protect abusers and violate Cambodia's human rights obligations."

According to its web site, the UNODC office in Cambodia has supported the government since 2001 in developing "effective approaches and techniques to deal with drug abuse" and "coordinated, community-based drug abuse counseling, treatment and rehabilitation care programs." Part of that support has involved technical assistance, with more than US$1 million earmarked for the development of community-based treatment.

The Human Rights Watch report revealed that, among other abuses in the detention centers, detainees are often forced to work at hard manual labor or exercise as a means of "treatment." Human Rights Watch said that comments to the press by Interior Ministry spokesperson, Khieu Sopheak, that labor and "sweating" were "one of the main ways to make drug-addicted people to become normal people," demonstrated that the Cambodian government is not committed to international standards. The remarks also show that the UN Office on Drug and Crime's engagement with the government has not yet built sufficient understanding and capacity to provide effective treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

Since the release of the Human Rights Watch report last week, UNICEF has faced intense public scrutiny for involvement in the Choam Chao "youth rehabilitation centre." A representative of the European Union has called for an investigation to determine if EU funding for UNICEF has supported human rights violations in the centers. UNICEF officials have said that they have supported government monitoring of the facilities and have not been aware of any abuses. The project is in the final year of funding, and plans for continued engagement are under review.

"We met with UNICEF in Cambodia last September about these abuses, and they told us they would investigate," Amon said. "But they haven't, and they continue to claim that children are in these centers voluntarily."

UNICEF also refused to share with Human Rights Watch their reports of past assessments conducted in collaboration with the Cambodian government.

Cambodian government officials have refused to meet with Human Rights Watch since the report was released and did not respond to written requests for information as the report was being prepared. Government and detention center officials have been quoted in local and international press reports denying the most severe abuses, though acknowledging physically punishing and drugging detainees.

In an interview with Radio Australia, Nean Sokhim, director of a center in Phnom Penh, said that detainees are given drugs to keep them from escaping. The commander of the military police detention center in the province of Banteay Meanchay described to the press how detainees at his center were forced to stand in the sun or "walk like monkeys" as punishment for attempting to escape.

"The Cambodian government needs to investigate these centers and hold those responsible for these abuses accountable," Amon said. "Instead of remaining silent, the United Nations should review its programs and support for these centers, and work with the government to shut them down."

Click here to read HRW's statement: http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/01/31/cambodia-un-should-review-role-drug-detention.

Click here to read the Human Rights Watch Report: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/cambodia0110webwcover.pdf.