While broadly backing a recent Human Rights Watch report on the country’s compulsory drug treatment centers, a visiting UN official yesterday praised the government’s talk of moving toward a voluntary alternative based on proven practices.
Cambodia’s drug treatment centers were described last month by Human Rights Watch as a near-institutionalized system of arbitrary and forced detentions, beatings and sexual abuse.
Gary Lewis, regional representative for the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in Bangkok, told reporters in Phnom Penh that the UN believed Cambodian authorities do intend to improve the situation and that community-based drug treatment, which he said is proven to be effective, should replace the centers.
“We are concerned that this evidence-based approach needs to be strengthened,” said Mr Lewis.
Mr Lewis said he had discussed the drug treatment centers with government officials during a brief visit to Phnom Penh.
“In our discussion with the government we believe that their intention to find alternatives to what is currently in practice…is sincere,” he said.
NACD Secretary-General Moek Dara could not be reached yesterday.
While calling the release of the Human Rights Watch report “a healthy thing,” Mr Lewis insisted that Cambodia was among the most willing countries in the region in discussing the shortcomings of its programs.
“I can tell you…that they are also concerned by what the report alleges,” he said of Cambodian officials’ attitude toward the Human Rights Watch report
His account came in sharp contrast with the government’s own statements at a Feb 4 news conference, where Meas Vyrith, deputy secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, called the report “completely unacceptable.”
Mr Lewis made an effort to move beyond such back-and-forth yesterday.
“Pointing fingers is good up to a point,” he said. “We now have to figure out what to do about it.”
At the request of the government, UNODC plans a seven-fold expansion a in the number of community-based treatment programs from 50 villages across Cambodia to 350, according to Mr Lewis.
Unlike detention in compulsory drug treatment centers, community-based treatment allows drug abusers to remain in contact with friends and family.
Axel Klein, an independent evaluator who reviewed the UNODC program last September, said yesterday that he supported its expansion. UNODC has withheld release of the evaluation to give the government a chance to digest it first, however. Mr Klein declined yesterday to discuss its contents.
Contacted yesterday afternoon, director of the NACD’s department of legislation, education and rehabilitation Neak Yuthea welcomed an expansion of the UNODC programs.
“I think that community-based treatment is good, but more than 300 communities are still not enough,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)