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UN faces dilemma on drug centres

THE United Nations Children’s Fund is continuing financial support for a controversial state-run rehabilitation centre, highlighting a split among rights groups and international organisations over how to engage with compulsory drug treatment centres accused of abuse.

Though acknowledging there are “issues” with the Youth Rehabilitation Centre in the capital’s Choam Chao district, UNICEF believes its support of the facility is also beneficial, representative Richard Bridle said in an interview.

“We are not going to advocate for its closure,” Bridle said. “What we are doing is we’ve raised the issues with the government.”

A January report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged that drug users detained in 11 government-run rehabilitation centres, including the Choam Chao facility, are subjected to forced confinement and physical abuse while receiving ineffective treatment.

UNICEF has come under criticism from rights groups as the only UN agency to directly support any of the centres financially. In 2009, UNICEF funded the Ministry of Social affairs with US$615,000, including $28,440 for the Choam Chao facility. This year, the agency is supporting case-management, monitoring and reintegration services.

Weeks after the HRW report’s release and six months after its staff members met with UNICEF privately on the issue, Bridle said the agency cannot conduct its own investigation into the claims because doing so is not within its mandate. Instead, UNICEF has asked authorities to investigate the abuse claims themselves.

“These are allegations that have been raised by Human Rights Watch. It’s not within our vocation to confirm or deny those,” Bridle said.

Like other UN agencies, Bridle said UNICEF does not support the compulsory treatment model practiced at the rehabilitation centres.
“We agree that there are better ways of dealing with people who have drug problems. Nobody who has not been given due judicial process should be incarcerated,” Bridle said.

However, UNICEF has also drawn a distinction between the forced treatment centres spread across the country and the Choam Chao facility, which the government and UNICEF define as “open” or voluntary.

“We need an open centre as a means of moving towards a more open treatment of kids who are in conflict with the law,” Bridle said. “If we remove the open centre, then that’s kind of encouraging the authorities to round up children, lock them away, throw away the key and forget about them.”

Rights groups, however, believe that is exactly what is happening at Choam Chao.

“Choam Chao is neither open nor voluntary,” Joe Amon, HRW’s director of health and human rights, said in an email.“Children who try and leave are beaten, given electric shocks and abused.”

Different views of consent
In interviews with the Post earlier this year, people who said they were detained at Choam Chao also reported having been arrested off the streets and held without charges.

Comments from the government, which has denied engaging in abuse at any of the centres, suggest that authorities and UN agencies have different interpretations of voluntary treatment.

In a February statement defending the centres, the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) said drug users are allowed to “voluntarily access” treatment. If drug users refuse, however, “those persons shall be forced to obtain the treatment”, the statement read.

Bridle acknowledged there are problems pertaining to how consent is administered. Not everyone may understand “consent procedures”, and children who want to leave the Choam Chao facility may not be allowed to in a timely manner, he said.

“By law, for everybody who is there, there should be a consent form for them to be there, but we do acknowledge there are going to be issues of implementation of such systems,” he said.

Though UNICEF has chosen to offer services at Choam Chao, other UN agencies have decided against funding any of the centres. The World Health Organisation, for example, discussed the issue of compulsory treatment centres in the region last year and made a collective decision not to participate in such facilities.

“There’s no evidence that they are effective in detoxing, treating or rehabilitating people with drug-dependence issues,” said Graham Shaw, the WHO’s technical adviser on drug use. “The fundamental line is if it’s not evidence-based, then we will not support it.”

Still, that line appears to have been crossed, even by other UN agencies who say they aren’t involved.

UNODC ‘refresher course’
Officials with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have said they are not funding services at any of the 11 facilities – in line with an overall position not to assist compulsory treatment centres directly if the government won’t commit to ensuring voluntary access across the board.

But the UNODC used 36 drug users institutionalised in at least one facility as subjects for a “refresher course” during training for a pilot outreach programme it led last year, according to project documents and UNODC officials.

“There have been occasions where in order to train the [outreach workers] that are working at the community level we have needed to have access to those centres where a number of drug users are in place,” Gary Lewis, the UNODC regional representative in Bangkok, told reporters at a press conference in February.

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