Director of the health division at Human Rights Watch
Posted: June 26, 2010
via Khmer NZ News Media
"[H]e started to whip me on my back with twisted electrical wire," said Kakada, recalling his detention in a so-called "youth rehabilitation center" in Cambodia. "I was in such pain. Sometimes I cry alone, after the beating, because it was so painful. I did not commit any mistake: why did they beat me like this?"
Picked up, suspected of using drugs, confined to a drug dependency "treatment" center without a trial, judge or jury, Kakada was forced to do unpaid labor and vigorous exercise to "cure" him of his addiction. Any violation of the rules - stepping out of line, not moving fast enough, smoking a cigarette - can lead to being whipped, beaten or given an electric shock.
Kakada is just one of hundreds of thousands of people in one of a number Asian countries locked in so-called drug "treatment" or "rehabilitation" centers. Inside these centers, at best, the treatment is ineffective. At worst - physically and psychologically scarring - it drives people to use drugs.
The fact that June 26 is both "International Day against Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking" and "International Day in Support of Victims of Torture" has become more than a coincidence. Evidence from around the world indicates that people who use drugs are all too often victims of torture.
A number of governments in Asia run drug detention centers where people are at risk of routine mistreatment or torture in violation of international human rights law. Authorities in these countries often consider drug use a moral failing that must be "disciplined out" of people. Run by public security, military or other forces, such centers strive to build up discipline through marches, strict internal rules, and long hours of compulsory labor. In such settings, further abuses are inevitable and medically trained experts in drug dependency treatment are not a feature or a requirement.
Even children are not safe from risk of torture in so-called treatment and rehabilitation centers. M'noh, a 16-year-old detainee in Choam Chao Youth Rehabilitation Center in Cambodia, told Human Rights Watch that a staff member "would use the cable to beat people... On each whip the skin would come off and stick on the cable." Other child detainees said they had been shocked with electric batons and experienced sexual violence by staff members.
International health and drug-control agencies, such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization, all endorse comprehensive, evidence-based drug dependence treatment services, including opioid substitution therapy, harm reduction, and psychosocial support. An important aspect of these services - from both an ethical and effectiveness perspective - is that people should have a choice of whether to use them. But in many countries, treatment - such as it is - is involuntarily.
In China, one former detainee said, : "I've tried to get clean and have been in compulsory labor camps more than eight times. I just cannot go back to a forced labor camp - [it is] a terrifying world where darkness knows no limits."
In Vietnam, 600 detained drug users recently escaped from a rehabilitation center. Vietnamese officials endorse a treatment regimen of "therapeutic labor," in which detainees work for long hours and are severely punished if they do not meet production quotas. "[T]hey beat people up, kicked the face, kicked the chest," a former resident of a rehab center near Hanoi told the BBC in 2008. "Later, people were made to work very hard. They said work to forget the addiction, work is therapeutic." These centers involuntarily detain people for up to four years.
These abuses are starting to get the attention of global leaders. The UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture recently visited three drug detention centers in Cambodia; the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has made detention of drug users a key focus for 2010. What is really needed, though, is clear, unequivocal statements by world leaders that these countries should ensure that drug users are never subjected to torture and that involuntary drug detention centers should be closed.
Unlike prisons, involuntary and abusive drug "treatment" centers can be abolished: they operate outside of the law and play no role in an evidence-based approach to drug issues. Detention and discipline are not a means of drug treatment- and allowing such centers to remain open ensures they will continue to abuse people whenever the monitors leave. These centers do not need to be revamped or modified; they need to be shut down.
On June 26, the UN should do more than recognize that drug policy and human rights abuses are overlapping issues; it should instruct governments to close involuntary drug detention centers where the rights of drug users are routinely violated, to end the abuse inherent in such settings.
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