Cambodia’s anti-drug officials say bulldozers will start clearing land in Preah Sihanouk province for what will be the largest compulsory drug treatment center in the country by the end of the month.
UN staff say they still have yet to receive any official word about the project, however, even while the government asks them for help replacing its widely criticized drug treatment centers with a nationwide and voluntary, community-based program.
While some UN staff refuse to even speak about the new center, others concede that it at the very least appears to contradict the government’s talk about a voluntary program. Rights groups, meanwhile, say the center makes any talk of progress toward replacing compulsory treatment centers premature at best.
Last month, a report from the US-based Human Rights Watch accused the government’s 11 drug treatment centers of virtually institutionalizing a system of arbitrary detentions, beatings and sexual abuse.
After meeting with the National Authority for Combating Drugs on Tuesday, however, the regional representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Gary Lewis, said the government was “sincere” about finding alternatives. The government had, after all, just repeated its pledge to close all 11 centers by 2015 along with its request that the UN expand its year-old voluntary treatment program to 350 communities.
Since January 2009, the UNODC has been running the program in 50 villages, helping drug addicts receive treatment within their own communities and in constant contact with their friends and families. Though the UN has yet to release an independent evaluation of the program, officials say they designed it around practices proven to work.
Asked if the new drug center being built in Preah Sihanouk posed any challenge to scaling up the community-based program, Mr Lewis declined to answer because he said any reply would be speculative.
Anand Chaudhuri, the UNODC’s project manager in Cambodia, also declined to speak about the new center because he had yet to hear about it from the government.
“That has not been shared with us in UNODC,” he said. “I have no interest in commenting on what has not been communicated to me.”
“We’re very much in the dark about it at the moment,” agreed Graham Shaw, a technical officer for the World Health Organization in Cambodia.
Though NACD secretary general Moek Dara spoke of the center briefly in a meeting with UN staff some months ago, he added, “the actual details, we’ve heard next to nothing about it so far.”
For now, though, Mr Shaw is giving the government’s talk of finding an alternative to compulsory treatment centers the benefit of the doubt and hoping it eventually clarifies how the new center fits into its overall plans.
Still, he added, “the contradictions are of a concern.”
Mr Dara said the NACD has no plans to tell the UN much more.
“We do not inform them about the national drug center because it is not in the UN program,” he said.
But that has not kept the government from speaking about the center with the press.
Mr Dara said the 2,000-capacity national drug treatment center will sit on a 20-hectare plot in Preah Sihanouk province’s Prey Nop district, Choeung Kor commune, and open its doors by 2015, the same year the 11 centers operating now are set to shutter.
“I think it is a good location with a good environment,” he said. “It is near the coast, port and the palm oil plantation of Okhna Mong Reththey.”
When the detainees leave, he added, “they could find jobs as palm oil plantation workers or porters.”
The NACD hopes that once the national center opens and start showing results, the government will be able to send fewer addicts through its doors year by year. But the plans also call for a facility that can hold about 2,000 addicts at once, just a few hundred people shy of the number of people who passed through all 11 of the government’s current centers in 2008.
“We’re concerned this is not an effort to end the illegal detention of suspected drug users, but just a consolidation of the existing system,” Joe Amon, director of HRW’s health and human rights division, said in a statement about the new center. “It would be dangerous and extremely naïve to consider this plan as ‘progress.'”
Amon also worries that Cambodia may follow the lead of its regional neighbors by using the community-based program to funnel people into detention centers.
“In order to avoid this situation continuing, organizations that work closely with the Cambodian government need to insist that their support and legitimacy come on the condition that all drug treatment be voluntary, and based on scientific evidence and human rights,” he said.
The UN said it would do just that should it accept the NACD’s request that it help improve services at the compulsory treatment centers. But the government’s plans to involve Vietnam in the new center have HRW worried.
According to the NACD, Vietnam has pledged $2.5 million toward building the center, enough to cover most of the projected budget. Cambodia also plans to seek out the experience and training of its neighbors-including Vietnam-to help it run the facility.
While Mr Dara said the center would not adopt the model of any one of its neighbors exclusively, he did praise the drug centers in Vietnam for providing detainees with education and employable skills.
That is just the sort of talk that troubles HRW.
“Vietnam’s system of compulsory drug treatment has scant regard for medically appropriate drug treatment or the human rights principles that should guide treatment,” Mr Amon said. “Forced labor, manufacturing garments or trinkets, is common. Abuses by guards against detainees appear to be widespread.”
There is also scant evidence that any of it helps addicts kick their habit. A recent study of Vietnam’s drug centers by Futures International, which helps developing countries set up public health and social programs, found a relapse rate of about 90 percent.
Officials at the Vietnamese Embassy could not be reached for comment. But the allegations are among the same problems HRW found with Cambodia’s drug treatment centers according the report it released Jan 25. The UNODC’s Mr Lewis said NACD officials last week told him they were “concerned by what the report alleges.”
Mr Dara denied the account.
“I did not say ‘concerned,'” he said.
While again calling for the current centers to gradually shut down, Mr Dara flatly rejected the HRW’s claims that the centers were illegally detaining or abusing people.
“The report is unacceptable,” he said. “We cannot accept it because we have never done that.”
Whatever comes of the centers or the community-based programs, it will happen amid Cambodia’s mounting struggle with amphetamine abuse.
“The country if facing a drug problem,” Mr Lewis said.
According to a November 2009 report prepared for the UNODC, the proportion of drug arrests involving crystalline methamphetamines jumped from 17 percent in 2007 to 37 percent in 2008. In 2009 authorities also discovered five methamphetamine laboratories across the country, a marked increase over previous years.
Mr Lewis said the data suggests that transnational drug syndicates are finding Cambodia an increasingly convenient place to manufacture, and maybe even market, their products.
“If either of those is true, we need to be worried,” he said. “If both of those is true, we need to be very worried.”