UN on Drug Detention: Ineffective. Illegal. Close it Down.

Amidst a blizzard of overly processed and careful-to-a-fault UN statements, it is a welcome development when 12 UN agencies can come together and issue a forthright judgment on right vs. wrong. For those of us working on health and human rights issues, a recent joint UN statement calling for the immediate closure of the hundreds of centers in which drug users are detained in the name of treatment came not a moment too soon. The message, endorsed by agencies such as UNAIDS, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the International Labor Organization, is unequivocal. Locking people up and abusing them in the name of drug rehabilitation is ineffective. It violates human rights.  And countries shouldn’t do it.

This call for closure of drug detention camps comes after years of horrifying reports of abuses in these facilities. In China, authorities estimate that there are 216,000 drug users detained in these camps—a reduced number from past years, but still far too many. Upon testing positive for drug use, these men and women are detained for up to five years and forced to work without pay as part of their “treatment.” In Vietnam, a recent estimate placed the number of detainees in forced labor camps at 35,000. Cambodia  and Laos also use compulsory drug detention, without medical assessment or right of appeal for those locked up.  Children are locked up too.

People who use drugs in such facilities have been beaten, starved, forced to work in the service of private companies, systematically humiliated, and brutally punished when they tried to escape. Nonetheless, governments continue to describe these detention camps as treatment and rehabilitation centers, and aid agencies have been hesitant to directly challenge this characterization. In some cases, donors have even worked to “build capacity” of center staff in drug treatment methods, as if staff who beat and torture detainees in the morning could be effective counselors in the afternoon. UN representatives have privately condemned these abuses, but in the past felt no ability to publicly confront governments on these practices. “We all know these places are concentration camps,” one UN official confided during our coffee together. “But really, what do you expect us to do?”

The joint UN statement offers an answer—one that should be heeded and replicated by donors like the U.S. and Australia who also fund HIV and drug-dependence programs in countries where such centers operate. Declaring that the centers have no place in civilized society and should be closed is a good start.

Next, of course, is the hardest part—work by the UN, international donors, non-governmental organizations, and governments themselves to move to voluntary, community-based treatment for those who need it, thus changing the UN recommendation to a reality.

5 Comments

Daniel, the information is relevant for us too. There are many the same "rehabilitation centre" are working in Ukraine. Even DU parents often give money in order their son/daughter will be detained "in the name of treatment".

As you know, council UN for Human Rights holds the second cycle of Universal Periodic Review of human rights in member countries of the UN. Frequency of Review is four years. Situation analysis is conducted based on information received from various sources including documents received from stakeholders - NGO and other organizations.

I'm going to have a meeting with advisor on Human Rights agency UN, Mr. Mark Bozhanik today.

Unfortunately, we aren't ready to give for this Ukrainian report serious analysis about DU/OST clients rights violations. But we try to understand what we need to do as soon as possibility.

I am saddened by all the suffering described on this site. To my understanding, there are relatively few places on the planet where rational, responsible, compassionate thinking is reflected by policy. I am an addict, myself, who has spent nearly eight calendar years incarcerated in Texas and Illinois prisons, so I know firsthand some of effects of criminalizing what is really a medical/psychological/social problem. I was most recently released less than one year ago and am struggling to construct a life here in Chicago. It is by no means easy, but I have a deep well of determination to draw from and refuse to give up. Thank you very much for the work you are doing in the Ukraine. I am pleased to hear the the UN is weighing-in favorably, but fear that they are too often not given the weight they deserve in their opinions/decisions/statements. Too bad....

The war on drugs is a complete failure and we need to rethink the way we handle the drug problem. User decriminalization and approaching the situation from a medical viewpoint rather than a criminal one would be a start.

@Olga --yes, the principles should apply to all drug treatment--punishment and deprivation is not therapeutic, chains aren't counseling, and drug users dependence shouldn't be mistaken for an inability to make decisions for themselves.

@Nana--the INCB is sadly, totally out of step with all evidence, understanding of human rights, or expertise. After years of pressing them, I now believe them to be unchangeable,uncredible and best ignored.

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