‘People are beaten unconscious and shocked with cattle prods. Abuse is common,’ says Sara Bradford, a Phnom Penhbased human rights researcher and advocate, as she describes Cambodia’s 14 compulsory treatment centres (CTCs). ‘The police pick up people who are supposedly drug dependent in street sweeps and, without any judicial process, lock them up.’ They are then held in detention for three to six months, but according to human rights activists, things are about to get considerably worse.

The Cambodian National Assembly recently passed the ‘Law on Drug Control’, following advice on the legislation from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Introduced to crack down on drug use, the law has been condemned for legalizing abuse – it allows compulsory detainment in CTCs, without a judicial order, for up to two years. A new mega-centre for up to 2,000 inmates is due to open this year.

Drug users are not the only people detained; the homeless, mentally ill, sex workers and street children are also interred in ‘catch all’ Social Affairs Centres. In 2008, 2,382 people were held, including 570 children. Joe Amon, Director of Human Rights Watch, says: ‘About a quarter of detainees across the system are children. They need care, not abuse.’

According to the Cambodian government, the legislation is aimed at ‘the rehabilitation of drug users’. However, the ‘treatment’ couldn’t be any worse, with therapeutic models to treat addiction entirely absent. ‘Conditions are atrocious,’ confirms Bradford. ‘There are no detoxification medications, and staff aren’t trained. Up to 70 people can be locked in a small room, without adequate nutrition or clean drinking water.’ Physical abuse is also endemic.

A 2010 report published by Human Rights Watch documents ‘treatment’ consisting of military drills, forced labour and exercise. Punishments include whipping with electrical wire, gang rape and being forced to donate blood. Not surprisingly, says Bradford, ‘people who have been in these centres are incredibly traumatized.’

The new law also allows for the compulsory treatment of minors. In 2010, a youth CTC, Chom Chao, was closed down after Human Rights Watch uncovered serious cases of child abuse. Chom Chao was run by the Ministry of Social Affairs and partially funded by UNICEF, and rights groups have strongly criticized UN and donor involvement in the centres. ‘If even one cent is allotted for activities in CTCs,’ says Bradford, ‘this denotes complicity and implies such centres are redeemable, which they’re not.’ Despite the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressing deep concern, UNICEF continues to fund the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Joe Amon says that in the two years since abuses in CTCs were uncovered, the situation has not improved: ‘The Cambodian government cares more about keeping the streets free of “socially undesirable people” than giving drug users treatment that actually works. UNODC should take a long, hard look at whether its project to “toughen up” Cambodian drug law hasn’t in fact made the situation worse.’

Claire Colley