THE UN agency responsible for advocating on behalf of children is facing questions over its involvement in a government-run drug rehabilitation centre – a facility a prominent rights watchdog says subjects detainees to violence while administering ineffective treatment.
UNICEF’s child-protection team has been providing technical support to the Youth Rehabilitation Centre in Choam Chao district for at least three years, according to an unpublished 2007 report produced by the National Authority for Combating Drugs, the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation.
A scathing report from Human Rights Watch released Monday asserts that drug users and other people sent to the Youth Rehabilitation Centre and 10 other such facilities live under threat of abuses such as physical and sexual violence and forced confinement.
Any kind of support for these centres, HRW contends, is cause for grave concern.
“These centres … operate outside of the law and without any accountability,” said Joe Amon, HRW’s director for health and human rights.
“Supporting activities in these centres risks legitimising them and could raise serious concerns about complicity with the abuses occurring within them.”
But UNICEF says the technical support it has provided to the Ministry of Social Affairs, which runs the Choam Chao centre, has been constructive.
“UNICEF has been supporting [the ministry] to ensure… the rights of those children to education, better opportunity for future employment through vocational training, recovery and reintegration and follow-up support services,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday.
The statement noted that reviews conducted in 2005, 2007 and 2008 found no evidence of “major violations”.
“No major violations were reported or documented on those reports,” UNICEF said.
The statement made a distinction between the Choam Chao facility – which it describes as “open”, or voluntary – and “closed” centres.
“UNICEF does not support the establishment of closed rehabilitation or reformatory centres for children in conflict with the law,” the statement read.
The HRW report, however, says that some people at the Choam Chao facility are held against their will. It cites interviews with former detainees to support that contention.
Former detainees interviewed by the Post also reported being sent to Choam Chao against their will as part of police street sweeps.
“They never gave a reason to us. They just didn’t want us to stay on the street,” said one former detainee, who asked that she not be named.
“They pointed at the car, and then they pushed me in.”
UNICEF’s ties to the Choam Chao facility highlight the conundrum aid groups and UN agencies face when debating whether to support official institutions that rights groups allege are havens of abuse.
“I think it’s a really difficult issue,” said Virginia Macdonald, a former consultant with the World Health Organisation (WHO) who worked in the offices of the NACD for more than two years.
Though she said she understood the argument behind HRW’s calls for the UN to urge the closure of such facilities, she added that the type of technical support provided by aid agencies could also be helpful.
“Surely it’s better for the participants that at least there’s some other organisation there that can at least witness what’s happening and hopefully improve capacity. I don’t think you can just say it’s definitely wrong for them to be in there,” she said.
During her time in Cambodia, Macdonald made visits to six rehabilitation centres named in the HRW report, she said.
“If those centres can’t provide ... healthcare, HIV treatment and testing, then you’re better off having an NGO go in and at least provide those services,” she said.
While UNICEF has chosen to get involved, other UN agencies have debated the issue and ultimately decided to hold back.
“There is no easy position to take. It’s for each agency to make the call themselves,” said Graham Shaw, the technical adviser for drug use with the WHO in Cambodia. “We do not feel support for staff at treatment centres is commensurate with a policy of advocating their closure.”
Instead of providing technical support to the centres directly, the WHO has offered to assist the Ministry of Health in the hope that ministry staff can offer health services in the controversial centres, Shaw said.
“If there were effective monitoring of people in these centres, then I think some assistance to [the centres] might be appropriate,” Shaw said. “But in their current state, providing assistance to staff working in these centres, for the WHO’s position, is very problematic.”