AUN envoy for HIV/AIDS this week urged high-ranking officials to reassess policies she said did not appear to match up with government rhetoric, notably those pertaining to the treatment of intravenous drug users and condom distribution.
But Dr Nafis Sadik, the UN secretary general’s special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, said she did not press the government on this year’s eviction of 40 HIV-affected families from central Phnom Penh to a relocation site in Dangkor district, an admission that drew the ire of rights groups after the case.
Sadik has met with officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, first lady Bun Rany and Deputy Prime Minister Ke Kim Yan, who is responsible for HIV/AIDS issues, since arriving in Cambodia on Saturday.
In an interview with the Post, she said she had highlighted the low quality of state-run drug-rehabilitation centres, which she said functioned more like detention centres and were “not really equipped to provide health care and psychological counselling”.
The government has recently advocated a softer approach towards drug users. In August, Ke Kim Yan said in a speech that drug laws should distinguish between drug traffickers and “victims who need to be educated and treated”.
Sadik said officials this week “agreed that they need to rethink some of their policies” on rehabilitation.
She said she had also pointed out an apparent disconnect between the 100 percent condom-use policy espoused by Hun Sen and Bun Rany and the government’s apparent reluctance to distribute condoms in karaoke bars and other entertainment venues for fear of inadvertently promoting promiscuity.
Most officials, she said, were made visibly uncomfortable by the subject.
“Some of these issues are very sensitive,” she said. “In Asia, they don’t want to address sexual and sexuality issues.”
In general, though, she said the UN was “pleased with the progress that has been made”, adding that Cambodia was “perhaps the only country in the world” that could achieve its HIV/AIDS Millennium Development Goal (MDG).
Cambodia’s adult HIV prevalence rate stood at 0.9 percent in 2006, far below the 2015 MDG target of 1.8 percent.
But she warned that further progress could be derailed by the persistent discrimination facing HIV-positive Cambodians.
“Even though the prime minister talks about making the odd visits to people living with HIV, the population does not understand that a person living with AIDS is not a menace to everyone else in society,” she said. “The public still thinks that this is a disease acquired because of your bad behaviour.”
A prime example of this, she said, was the case of Borei Keila, a central Phnom Penh community that was evicted over the summer. More than 60 HIV-positive patients from 40 families were relocated to a site in Dangkor district’s Tuol Sambo village, a move that prompted widespread outcry from rights groups concerned about the site’s oppressive heat, lack of food and limited job prospects.
Sadik said the decision to move the families to Tuol Sambo had reflected “the will of the people”.
“The will of the people here is, ‘isolate them,’” she said.
Reflecting on the negative response from international rights groups, she said, “I think the international community gives mixed messages sometimes. We want them to be democratic, but we don’t want them to be democratic on issues for which we have a different opinion.”
She said, however, that she did not devote much time this week to Tuol Sambo, which received heavy coverage in the international media.
“I think they’re quite aware of it because it was taken up to the international level,” she said. “We didn’t want to push it because it’s seen as having been resolved.”
Several rights groups said they wished Sadik had been more forceful on the issue.
“I hardly think that the people who were cruelly forced from their homes to live in a cramped HIV ghetto would say that their issue has been ‘resolved’,” said David Pred, director of the NGO Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia. “It is a very poor reflection on the United Nations that the special envoy views the situation this way.”
Joe Amon, director of the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, said much of the situation at Tuol Sambo “remains up in the air”, citing the lack of “nutritious food assistance”.
National Aids Authority Secretary General Teng Kunthy said he was too busy to speak to a reporter Wednesday.
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