I am writing in response to the article which ran last Thursday, on March 17, entitled “Needle Exchange in Daun Penn blocked”.
Almost one quarter of injection drug users in Cambodia are HIV positive, according to UNAIDS. This is an alarmingly high rate, rivaling that of rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Needle syringe programming, or NSP, provides clean syringes for injection to drug users, allowing them to reduce their risk of contracting or transmitting HIV.
Scientific research from around the world has repeatedly proven the effectiveness of NSP, showing that communities with NSP services see sharply decreased HIV rates amongst injection drug users.
In blocking NSP services the Cambodian government is handing down a death sentence to injection drug users. Limiting the area in which NGOs can conduct life-saving activities shows either a huge lack of understanding or a huge lack of compassion on the part of the government.
The article states that “Daun Penh officials said they did not want drug users congregating in the district ...” I would like to know how, in this aid-dependent country, people are supposed to receive services which originate at a single location, without “congregating”.
The Village and Commune Safety Policy from which these directives are said to have originated from says nothing about “congregation”, but I have personally heard this term used on multiple occasions by the government when referencing drug users. The thoughtless creation of directives, policies and official letters is an incredibly harmful practice that often leaves people arbitrarily detained, in the case of “street cleaning campaigns”; or, in this case, without access to vital services.
Without access to NSP services the HIV rate will undoubtedly increase, exponentially. This will leave drug users, their partners and their children more likely to contract HIV. When HIV spreads like wildfire through this population, where will they go to receive healthcare?
Obviously not the local clinic because that would then be a place of “congregation”.
I would like to take this opportunity to call upon the UN, specifically UNAIDS, to issue a public statement calling for an immediate end to any government policy which places restrictions on consumer’s access to scientifically proven preventative services.
Issuing such a statement would be in line with the OHCHR and UNAIDS international guidelines on HIV/AIDS and human rights under guideline 3: “States should review and reform public health legislation to ensure that they adequately address public health issues raised by HIV/AIDS ... and that they are consistent with international human rights obligations.”
Denying at risk populations vital services based on discriminatory policies whilst denying them their right to freedom of movement is a travesty on the part of the Cambodian government and any policy disallowing people their birth rights violates the UN international declaration on human rights, to which Cambodia is a signatory.
The lack of accountability Cambodia thrives on in situations like this is sickening and I do hope this letter is not the only form of criticism the government receives.
Human Rights Consultant
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