PHNOM PENH // They are abducted and held against their will in centres where many - some of them children - are beaten, whipped, and shocked with electric batons. These are allegations made in two recent reports about conditions in drug treatment centres in Cambodia, including one that receives funding from the United Nations' child protection agency, Unicef.
The claims, which government officials denied, have UN agencies scrambling to come up with a cohesive response. Both UNAids and the World Health Organisation have called for all the facilities to be closed immediately, while Unicef has denied that there is abuse in Choam Chao, a youth centre to which it provided US$28,440 (Dh104,000) last year. In late March, Unicef's representative in Cambodia, Richard Bridle, told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper that Human Rights Watch (HRW) had made a mistake when it alleged abuse of children at Choam Chao. Mr Bridle suggested that researchers had confused Choam Chao for another centre.
HRW said it made no such mistake. The National interviewed two street youths who said they were taken by police to Choam Chao in early April, after the HRW report was released and the allegations were reported by local media. Both spoke on condition of anonymity. "They beat me twice. I used my hands to block the blows," said one. "They beat me with a baton." The other boy said he was not abused, but he witnessed guards at the centre beating two boys who had scuffled during a game of football.
Other youth and adults told similar stories and worse to HRW and to researchers who contributed to a joint report made public April 27 by the Open Society Institute and the University of Melbourne. Both reports detailed systematic abuse in 11 drug treatment centres across Cambodia, including severe beatings and rape perpetrated by guards. In light of such reports, the UNAids executive director, Michel Sidibé, wrote to HRW expressing concern that conditions in the centres would "discourage people who use drugs from accessing health services, including for drug dependence and for HIV prevention, treatment and care".
"I believe that the centres in Cambodia should be closed," Mr Sidibé wrote in the letter. HRW said it received similar correspondence from the World Health Organisation, which called for the closing of all 11 centres, including the one funded in part by Unicef. The chief of communications for Unicef's Cambodia office, Marc Vergara, declined to comment. At the time, he said Unicef was meeting with other "partners" to discuss the response to allegations of abuse at Choam Chao and other facilities.
"We know about that, but we have decided not to comment until we have come to the end of this discussion," he said in a telephone interview last month, adding that he did not know when the talks would conclude. Joe Amon, HRW's director of health and human rights, said his organisation met with Unicef staff in Cambodia, Bangkok and New York to inform them of conditions at Choam Chao long before the report was released.
"Quite honestly, I'm shocked," Mr Amon said. "Unicef's mandate is to protect children and they've had nine months to investigate the evidence we've provided them of the torture, arbitrary detention and forced labour of children." The UN's Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) were contacted by telephone and were submitted questions by e-mail. Both agencies declined to comment.
UNODC is leading the UN's efforts, in co-ordination with the Cambodian government, to overhaul the country's drug treatment system. Some details of the plan were highlighted in a recent presentation given by Juana Tomas-Rossello of UNODC's East Asia and Pacific regional office. The $9.7-million programme plans to extend health services for drug users to communities throughout the country. Community health workers would then refer them to one or possibly two national rehabilitation centres where they would voluntarily submit to treatment. The plan has a timeframe of five to eight years, according to Dr Tomas-Rossello.
"At the same time, the UN recommends that while the new model drug dependence treatment system is being developed and the current drug detention centres remain open, compliance with Cambodia's international human rights obligations is guaranteed," Margaret Lamb, a spokeswoman for the office of the UN resident co-ordinator in Cambodia, said in an interview. But human rights groups remain sceptical that conditions in drug detention centres will change without international pressure on the Cambodian government.
"When thousands of people have been abused, subject to torture and forced labour in these centres, the UN should really find the courage to plainly say that the centers should be immediately closed and those responsible for the torture held to account," Mr Amon said. Licadho, a local human rights group, said it provided evidence including photos of abuse at two drug detention centres to the ministry of social affairs in 2008.
"Nearly two years after, the ministry has yet to conduct a credible investigation," said Naly Pilorge, the director of Licadho. "Quite the opposite, the ministry went on publicly rejecting undeniable evidence of unlawful detentions in the two centres and took actions to cover up the abuses." Kong Chhan, the deputy director general of the ministry, declined to comment on alleged abuse at detention centres, including Choam Chao, and he directed questions to the National Authority on Combating Drugs.
"In terms of my position as a government officer I say that everything's OK in the centres," said Neak Yuthea, the authority's director of prevention and education. But, he added: "You can ask someone who is independent." @Email:email@example.com