UN Expert Says Donors Should Stop Funding Drug Detention Centers
March 3, 2013
Illegal detention, forced labor, and sexual violence are not drug dependency treatment. The UN’s expert on torture has made it clear that governments should close down these centers and donors should stop subsidizing these abuses.
Rebecca Schleifer, health and human rights advocacy director

(Geneva) –A United Nations report about torture and other abuses in healthcare settings points to the need for donors to withdraw funds to compulsory drug detention centers, Human Rights Watch and Harm Reduction International said today.

The report was presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 4, 2013, by the special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez. It says that people identified as drug users are held without due process in government-run detention centers where they face serious abuse – including physical and sexual violence and forced labor – all in the name of “rehabilitation.” Human Rights Watch has done extensive research on the subject in Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Lao PDR, and Harm Reduction International has also reported on donor support to centers in these countries.

“Illegal detention, forced labor, and sexual violence are not drug dependency treatment,” said Rebecca Schleifer, health and human rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN’s expert on torture has made it clear that governments should close down these centers and donors should stop subsidizing these abuses.”

International donors have provided funding and other assistance to these centers, which deny effective drug treatment and operate without adequate human rights oversight.

Mendez, who is mandated to monitor and call attention to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment around the world, called on governments to close drug detention centers “without delay” and to create voluntary, evidence-based health and social services that respect human rights in the community for drug users. He called on donor countries to “cease support” for existing drug detention centers or for opening new ones, and to establish an effective mechanism for monitoring drug dependence treatment practices.

In March 2012, 12 United Nations agencies, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Health Organization, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and UNAIDS, issued a joint statement calling for the closure of drug detention centers and the release of the people detained there “without delay.” But international donors continue to provide funding and other support to many centers, despite the known human rights consequences.

In June, for example, the US Government pledged $400,000 to support the Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision to “upgrade” facilities at Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Center, adding to a decade of support by the US, the UN, and other international donors.

Past US funds have paid for the construction of fences surrounding the center, and of dormitories to expand the capacity of the government to detain drug users, street children, and ethnic minorities. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report documented brutal violence and other serious abuse of adults and children at Somsanga.

Australia and EU countries have also contributed money to support the operation of drug detention centers. According to a 2012 report by Harm Reduction International, Australia, Luxembourg, and Sweden contributed more than a million USD for a multi-year UNODC project on “capacity building” for drug detention center staff in Vietnam, a country where drug users are subjected to forced labor and held in “punishment rooms” using torture techniques.

“The idea that these abusive drug detention facilities offer education or rehabilitation is absurd, since people are forced to work in the service of private companies, starved if they miss their work quotas, and tortured for disobeying the rules or attempting to escape,” said Rick Lines, Harm Reduction International executive director. “Donors would not tolerate this at home.”

Mendez’s report comes at a time when there is increasing scrutiny of international aid spent on drug control in countries with extremely poor human rights records. Donors such as Denmark continue to fund drug enforcement in Iran, for example, despite widespread executions, including public hangings, of people captured in drug cases in recent years.

“All governments – including international donors – are on notice that supporting compulsory drug detention centers puts them at risk of complicity in torture and other serious human rights abuses,” Schleifer said. “They should make it a priority to end these abuses and redirect their support to voluntary, community-based treatment and other programs that truly respect drug users’ human rights.”

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on abuses in drug detention centers, please visit:
 

 

For Harm Reduction International reports on human rights abuses in drug detention centers, please visit:

 

Testimony from former detainees of drug treatment centers in China, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia:

“If we opposed the staff they beat us with a one-meter, six-sided wooden truncheon. Detainees had the bones in their arms and legs broken. This was normal life inside.”
–Former detainee, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2010
 

“They try to teach not to use drugs, that it isn’t good to use [drugs], while showing that normal people have a good future. I don’t think the classes helped me stop using drugs… Some people use more drugs when they come out of Somsanga.”
–Former detainee, Vientiane, Lao PDR, late 2010

“There are lots of people and not enough food. It was hard to sleep there because in my room there were 60 people. There was not enough water for the showers, only a few minutes to shower every day.”
–Former detainee, Vientiane, Lao PDR, late 2010

“I tried to run away, and in the process, I broke both feet. When I went to the hospital for treatment, I was arrested and sent back to the drug addiction center… Inside I was given very little food, and they never gave me any medicine at all to treat my feet. I was locked up for about half a year and my feet became crippled.”
–Written account from former detainee, Yunnan, China, 2009
 

“All drug detention is, is work. We get up at five in the morning to make shoes. We work all day and into the night. That’s all it is.”
–Former detainee, Yunnan, China, 2009

“There were about seven children in my room but maybe about 100 children altogether. The youngest was about 7 years old. The children are not drug users but homeless, like beggars on the street.”
–Former detainee, Vientiane, Lao PDR, late 2010
 

“[A staff member] would use the cable to beat people...On each whip the person’s skin would come off and stick on the cable...”
–Former detainee, age 16, describing whippings he witnessed in the Social Affairs Youth Rehabilitation Center in Choam Chao, Cambodia
 

“[After arrest] the police search my body, they take my money, they also keep my drugs...They say, ‘If you don't have money, why don’t you go for a walk with me?...[The police] drove me to a guest house.... How can you refuse to give him sex? You must do it. There were two officers. [I had sex with] each one time. After that they let me go home.”
–Former detainee, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, explaining how she was raped by two police officers