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Drug-law alarm bells

ARTICLES of a draft drug control law expected to be finalised by the end of this month are consistent with procedures used in Vietnam and China, and could result in drug users being compelled to perform forced labour, Human Rights Watch has warned.

Joe Amon, director of HRW’s health and human rights division, said in an email yesterday that both Vietnam and China “have reportedly offered assistance to Cambodia on drug policy”.

“There is a real danger that Cambodian centres will follow the Chinese or Vietnamese model – longer periods of detention and detainees forced to labour for private companies,” he said.

A recent version of the draft law includes an article stipulating that treatment periods at government-run centres can last for up to two years. Amon said on Sunday that the current law did not specify minimum or maximum periods for rehabilitation, but that “the current practice is to detain people for three to six months, sometimes a year”.

Rights groups have reported that detention periods for drug users are longer in China and Vietnam, but Amon said this approach had not proved successful. “Rates of relapse to drug use in both China and Vietnam have been independently estimated at over 90 percent so we know that these approaches don’t work,” he said.

Neak Yuthea, director of the department of legislation, education and rehabilitation at the National Authority for Combating Drugs, yesterday confirmed that Cambodia had looked to Vietnam while drafting drug control and rehabilitation policies.

“We learned from Vietnam about how they proceed in their centres and how they care for their addicted people, so that we will apply it to Cambodia,” he said, before declining to comment further, saying he was busy.

In December last year, Cambodian officials confirmed plans to build the country’s first national drug rehabilitation centre, with funding from the Vietnamese government.

Prominent businessman and Senator Mong Reththy pledged to donate 20 hectares of land in Preah Sihanouk province for the centre, which he said would provide job opportunities for drug users in nearby palm oil and acacia plantations and his privately owned Oknha Mong Port.

Through his company, the Mong Reththy Group, or its subsidiaries, Mong Reththy is involved in all three sectors. The port and acacia plantation operations are in the same district as the planned treatment centre.

Yesterday, Mong Reththy said the Vietnamese government had pledged US$2 million to $3 million in funding for the project, and that Cambodia was waiting to receive the money before beginning construction on the centre. “Right now we are waiting for Vietnam to give us the money,” he said. “We hope they will give it to us as soon as possible because we see now there are more drug-addicted people who need to be cared for.”

He added that he suspected Cambodian and Vietnamese officials “were talking about” giving the contract to build the centre to the Mong Reththy Group.

“We gave them land so the Cambodian and Vietnamese government may give our company [the contract],” he said. “It would mean a payback of the good deed when I gave the land to the government.”

On Sunday, Amon said HRW was concerned that the draft law “allows private ‘donations’ to be made to the centres”.

“While this may seem an innocuous provision, it opens the legal door for private individuals and companies to offset the costs of drug treatment in Cambodia,” he said.

“The most worrying scenario is one of systematised forced labour by detainees for the benefit of private companies – again, something we see in the so-called ‘drug rehabilitation’ centres in China and Vietnam.”

Em Hoy, an official at the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said on Sunday that the draft law “protects all people’s interests”. He could not be reached yesterday.

Final touches
Civil society groups were expected yesterday to submit recommendations to the NACD ahead of an internal meeting of the team responsible for drafting the new law.

Tony Lisle, country coordinator at UNAIDS Cambodia, said via email yesterday that the United Nations would recommend alternatives to compulsory treatment centres be included in the draft law.

“The UN will be recommending that a harm reduction approach be recognised in the Drug Law and its subsequent Sub-Decrees; that drug users should be decriminalised and evidence-informed public health and community support approaches be applied in the treatment of drug dependency,” he said.

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