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New drug law under fire

Human rights groups have attacked the contents of a new draft drug law, describing it as a “dangerous mess” that could further institutionalise the abuse of drug users in government-run treatment centres.

Critics have also questioned the role of the United Nations drug agency involved with the drafting of the law, claiming it has not made sufficient efforts to ensure the law adheres to the agency’s own minimum standards for drug treatment.

The draft, a recent version of which was obtained by The Post, lays out the new punishments for drug trafficking, possession and use. It also dictates the circumstances under which drug users can be forced to undertake controversial treatment programmes.

In its current form, rights activists say the law is consistent with the punitive drug policies in force in Vietnam and China and could result in drug users being abused and compelled to perform forced labour.

“As it currently stands, the draft law is internally contradictory, confusing, at odds with international law and contrary to best practices in criminal justice, drug treatment, mental health and harm reduction,” said Damon Barrett, a senior human rights analyst at the United Kingdom-based International Harm Reduction Association. “It is a dangerous mess.”

Among the concerns are provisions defining a drug addict as any person who “consumes drugs and is under the influence of drugs” (Article 4). The draft also contains no provisions exempting needle exchanges and other harm reduction organisations from prosecution under six articles relating to the “facilitation” of drug use.

Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said the law appeared to “miss the target” when it comes to drug addiction. The absence of exemptions for harm reduction services could also deter groups from providing such services to drug users, she said.

Of greatest concern, however, are sections of the draft dealing with the involuntary treatment of drug users.

In January, Human Rights Watch reported on the conditions in seven Cambodian drug-detention centres, documenting the “widespread beatings, whippings, and electric shock[s]” of detainees. Under Article 109 of the draft, drug users can be forced into involuntary treatment for up to two years.

“In its current form, the draft law is worse,” said Joe Amon, director of HRW’s health and human rights division. “Drug users will be detained longer and there are inadequate guarantees that they’ll get appropriate treatment for drug dependency.”

While Article 101 of the draft claims treatment and rehabilitation can only take place with the consent of drug users, it says treatment can be compelled in “special cases”, for the “benefit of the drug addict” or for the “common interest”. Naly Pilorge said that considering the government’s track record in arbitrary detention, such vague terms were “bound to be abused”.

Despite recent improvements – such as the launch of a community-based drug treatment programme in October – there are indications the government is still moving toward a more punitive model of drug treatment.

This month, the Council of Ministers approved plans for the country’s largest drug rehabilitation centre. Moek Dara, Secretary General of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said the facility would be built on 20 hectares of land in Preah Sihanouk province donated by tycoon Mong Reththy, and would have a capacity of 2,000.

“We’re not forcing them to be bad, we’re forcing them to be good,” he said at the time. Mong Reththy added that internees would be invited to work on plantations that he owns nearby.

Moek Dara yesterday defended the harsher penalties in the new draft law, saying they would only target those who produce, transport or purchase drugs – not drug addicts.

“We decided to put harsher penalties for drug offences because we wanted to completely stop the people from using, producing and smuggling all kinds of drugs in our country,” he said, adding that the law would meet “international legal standards”.

“These penalties were also suggested by our mixed experts, including Cambodian drug experts, UN drug experts and other international experts, who have been involved in drafting the Drug Law,” he added.

A ‘contradictory’ approach

Rights activists, however, say the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – the UN agency most closely involved in the drafting of the new law – has not done enough to ensure the legislation adheres to international best practice.

Indeed, the current draft appears to fall well short of recommendations contained in a UNODC discussion paper, which lays out unofficial agency standards for involuntary drug treatment.

The paper, from October 2009, states that spells of such treatment “should not exceed a maximum of some days and should be applied under strict legal supervision only”. A typical treatment period, it adds, should last from “several hours to a maximum of several days” – compared with the two-year maximum contained in the new draft legislation.

The paper states that the evidence of the therapeutic effect of long-term involuntary treatment was “lacking”, and recommended the eventual phase-out of such forms of treatment.

Echoing HRW’s report from January, the UNODC recognises that such facilities can devolve into “labour camps with unpaid, forced labour” akin to “a form of extra judicial punishment”.

But critics say UNODC’s approach towards Cambodian drug policy has been contradictory and at odds with its official position.

In an internal project document from 2009, a copy of which was seen by The Post, the UNODC stated that its legal team had made a legislative proposal to the Cambodian government the year before to “substantially modify current Cambodian drug legislation”, and to amend five sections of the old law. Among these was the “strengthening [of] penalties for drug offences and other drug-related crimes”.

The same document, however, also pointed out that the agency had not been able to ensure “that the penalty threshold for drug offences was lowered, that human rights were protected and that the law was consistent with harm reduction principles”. Despite these concerns, it only recommended that the law be reviewed three years after its passage.

“UNODC has made public statements that Cambodia’s centres should be closed, while simultaneously working up a law to increase periods of compulsory ‘treatment’ in the centres,” HRW’s Amon said.

“Despite what they’ve said in public, the real behind-the-scenes technical assistance to the Cambodian government follows an old-fashioned ‘war on drugs’ mentality in which human rights concerns are an afterthought.”

As an example, he said the agency could be doing “much more” to publicly counter misinformation about the apparent success of Vietnamese drug treatment centres.

Naly Pilorge of Licadho agreed that the money and “public praises” bestowed on the government by UN agencies should be conditional on the adoption of certain policies, “including this upcoming drug law”.

Officials from UNODC, however, defended the agency’s role in the drafting of the law, saying its inputs were “consistent with the principles and values” of the UN.

“We have formally proposed a number [of] amendments to the draft law,” said Olivier Lermet, UNODC’s country manager. “Through this communication we (all the UN agencies) have sought to bring the draft law into line with [Cambodia’s] international obligations.”

Lermet also dismissed criticisms that the agency had wavered in its approach. “The voice of UNODC on this issue is loud and clear,” he said. “We have formally written our inputs to the Royal Government of Cambodia and there is absolutely no ambiguity in our stance.”

While drug traffickers must be the focus of actions taken by the anti-drug authorities, people who use drugs “must be seen and treated as patients, requiring support rather than [punishment] or incarceration”, he said.

As an example, he cited the establishment of a Community Based Drug Treatment programme as evidence of the agency’s concrete action.

Pieter van Maaren, the World Health Organisation’s representative in Cambodia, said the WHO – which has also provided input on aspects of the law – had advocated for the adoption of “evidence-informed approaches” to all forms of drug treatment and rehabilitation.

Van Maaren said the WHO has long advocated the closure of treatment centres not adopting forms of proven treatment, but that it was the responsibility of the government to make the changes. It is “not the role of the UN to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state”, he added.

In any case, the NACD’s Moek Dara said the draft was complete and would likely be passed to the National Assembly for approval early next year.

Barrett from the IHRA said it was difficult to say with certainty what effect the law will have if passed in its current form, but said the outlook was “not good”.

“Experience dictates that when laws create a supportive legal environment for human rights abuses, then those abuses are more likely,” he said.

“That is exactly what this law does – it is an invitation for human rights violations.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BUTH REAKSMEY KONGKEA

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