Cambodia’s Alarming New Drug Law

Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen last week approved a controversial new drug law that opens the door to rampant human rights violations. The legislation, which is expected to be signed into law within the next few weeks, will force drug users in the Asian nation into involuntary treatment for up to two years. Most of those who are detained will find themselves in facilities where detainees report that beatings, forced labor, and rape are commonplace.

Beyond compulsory treatment, other troubling provisions in the law include one that defines a drug addict as any person who “consumes drugs and is under the influence of drugs.”  Moreover, two of the most effective public health interventions for drug users—harm reduction and needle-exchange programs—are not protected from prosecution.

Government officials in Cambodia have argued the country needs tough policies to curb drug use, but human rights groups have roundly criticized the new law as draconian and abusive. In the interview below, Phnom Penh-based human-rights research consultant Sara Bradford weighs in on what she sees as the new law’s potential impact and what steps critics can take next.

What will be the most immediate impact of the new reforms?

There are a few notable impacts that I think we will see once the law is passed.  The law is heavily focused on cracking down on personal drug use with the intention of sending users to compulsory treatment centers (CTC). This is already a common practice for the government here, and these centers are nothing more than places of arbitrary detention where drug users face extensive human rights abuses. Under the most recent available draft of the new drug law (November 2010), impunity is given to officials working within the CTCs, which will allow such abuses to continue, unabated.

Currently, despite constitutionally given rights, there is no due process for those being sent to CTCs, drug users are arbitrarily arrested and sent directly to CTCs having never seen a courtroom. While the new law does define a judicial process, this is only legalizing the draconian processes which are already in practice and have been widely condemned by rights groups and the UN.

And what longer-term ramifications can drug users expect?

Currently, the average time a drug user spends in a CTC is three months, but the new law defines the detention period as six months to two years.  This far exceeds international treatment standards and best practices. Moreover, detention periods are not based on the nature of a crime but will seemingly be at the whim of the court to decide how long someone is locked away.

The law also allows for the extradition of non-citizens who commit drug crimes. Cambodia does not currently have the death penalty but with extradition agreements in place with countries such as China and Malaysia it is possible, and likely that at some point, someone will be sentenced to execution as a result if committing a drug crime in Cambodia.

Cambodia has been repeatedly criticized for its abusive drug detention centers. Under this new legislation, should we expect to see an even greater proliferation of such facilities? Why?

The Cambodian government has, in the past year, repeatedly stated that they plan to close all but one of their 14 CTCs. The CTC they plan on keeping open is still in its construction phase with an expected completion date of late 2012; it is expected to have a capacity of 2,000 inmates. The center, which the Cambodian government is referring to as a “center of excellence,” is being built in Sihanoukville, a southern port city in Cambodia, and its construction is being funded by Vietnam.

There are a number of concerns surrounding this center. First, its close proximity to ports and palm oil plantations are feared to be an indication of increased forced labor practices. The new law invites “contributions from various contributors to support [treatment center] operations” thus allowing private sources to become stakeholders in the CTCs and opening the door for such sources to have interests in benefiting from forced labor practices.

Additionally, with reference to the government’s plan to close all but one of the centers, this has not been the case so far. In May 2011 the government, with a donation from the Development and Investment Bank of Vietnam, opened the first women’s only CTC in the country. Prior to this, women were not detained in compulsory settings. The new women’s unit has a capacity of 100 people and as of June 2011, 12 women were being detained there.

The government also plans to re-open Chom Chao, a center which was formerly a “Youth Rehabilitation Center,” run by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Chom Chao was closed after a scathing report detailing abuses within the center was released by Human Rights Watch in early 2010.

There is currently a sub-decree defining the new organizational structure for Chom Chao’s re-opening as the “Interim National Rehabilitation and Treatment Center of Excellence.” Chom Chao has yet to be re-opened, and it is rumored that the government is waiting on an allotment of funds from Vietnam, to the tune of $46 million, before re-opening the center.

Many groups asked the government to consider changes to the draft legislation that were not made. In your mind, what would a better alternative law have looked like?

In all honesty, this law is such a complete failure as a piece of legislation, especially from a human rights perspective, that nothing short of a complete rewrite would make it acceptable. The current draft echoes the ineffective and abusive policies of Cambodia’s neighboring countries, Vietnam and Thailand, as well as taking on a U.S. “war on drugs” approach – which has never proven to be successful.

This law will only serve as a mechanism to enhance Cambodia’s already atrocious human rights record and by passing it lawmakers are demonstrating their lack of commitment to human rights as well as their acquiescence to the outdated and ineffective policies of donor countries and organizations.

How should harm reduction groups, for instance, advise those who participate in their programs on what this new law could mean for them?

I think it will be crucial for NGOs working with drug users to review the law closely and inform their participants of what their rights are within the law, specifically due process – something  many drug users have never had the opportunity to experience.

Additionally, there are provisions which criminalize behaviors which were not formerly seen as offenses. For example, Article 59, “the offense of joining a criminal group” is defined as “The criminal group is a group comprised from 3 persons which is established ... formal or informal in order to commit the offense as provided in this law.”  This particular article undermines harm reduction basics such as urging individuals not to use drugs alone. Under this article, anyone who uses drugs within a group is subjected to a double penalty.

For activists who are concerned by these reforms, what should be their next steps?

The possibility of any policy reform is dependent on persistent advocacy  Applying continuous pressure on the government through any and all means possible is imperative in working towards the implementation of rights based policies which adhere to best practice approaches and meet international standards.

For more information about drug detention, please visit the Campaign to Stop Torture in Health Care website.

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Is there any country with the moral capacity to criticize these laws? The US arrests 800,000 people every year for possessing cannabis - a herb that's far safer than most of the foods we consume. Do not criticize another country's repugnant and draconian laws before you fix your own!

On June 17, 1971, President Nixon told Congress that "if we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely destroy us." After forty years of trying to destroy "the drug menace in America" we still *haven't* been able to destroy it and it still *hasn't* destroyed us. Four decades is long enough to realize that on this important issue, President Nixon was wrong! All actions taken as a result of his invalid and paranoid assumptions (e.g. the federal marijuana prohibition) should be ended immediately!

It makes no sense for taxpayers to fund the federal marijuana prohibition when it *doesn't* prevent people from using marijuana and it *does* incite the awful violence that we read about in the news every day by making criminals incredibly wealthy and inciting the Mexican drug cartels to murder thousands of people every year.

We need legal adult marijuana sales in supermarkets, gas stations and pharmacies for exactly the same reason that we need legal alcohol and tobacco sales - to keep drug dealer criminals out of our neighborhoods and away from our children. Marijuana must be made legal to sell to adults everywhere that alcohol and tobacco are sold.

"There's something extraordinarily perverse when we're so concerned about preventing addicts from having access to drugs that we destroy the lives of many times more people, either through untreated pain or other drug war damage".

Absolutely so ,we have way past the time that recreational drugs should have been legally been controlled and sold worldwide.The legalisation and controlled sales of drugs will most certainly make this world a better place.

What laws should have been put in place in stead is that proceeds of drug sales go towards education,education,education and education.

I have spent time in Cambodeo and and the living conditions and abuse of all kinds of human rights is appaling and it is not as a result of poverty as mutch as a result of ignorance.Unfortunetly most Cambodeans have been robbed of the right to education for so long that they dont know any better when it comes to human rights matters.

This new legislation is a direct attempt and enforcing free/slave labour as did the Germans with the Jewish people that were sent to work in german factories during the day and then had to return to the concentration camps at night.

These will not be rehab centres but mere concentration camps.

well said Jillian. putting people in compulsory centers does not work and this has been proven. what we need is services and evidence informed set ups where people are provided the right kind of services and respecting ones rights. Trying to prevent drug use or drugs hasn't worked and history says it. One one side we have the strategies and investment on reducing drug use related harm while on the other side you put rigid structures and laws then will never compliment the HR strategy.

It would not be so bad if the law were enforced with strict equality. What are the chances of that?........Right. .......sigh........

The war on drugs is both useless and a complete failure. Supporters of the drug war either don’t know what they are talking about or are making money or their living from it (just as much a drug dealer IMHO, worse they pretend to do good but the only good they do is for their own pocketbook)

Before the so called drug war and laws; how much violence did we see? Nothing compared to today. How many people sat in prisons?

Drugs are cheap, dirt cheap – all of them – the price is not only fixed to supply and demand principles but more important, the value is set by the risk associated with the particular drug product. The greater the risk the higher the value. It is that simple.

A cheap drug is made costly by the laws and enforcement of those laws. This drives up the value. When we have a high value illegal product – we provide high value revenue streams for organized crime groups (they don’t care about the law) In contrast a high value drain on publicly funded resources.

With ever greater increased law enforcement, we have ever greater increased value of the illegal product. With the high value product the organized crime groups push their products that much more intensely – spreading the problem and generating greater revenue streams – over and over this is played out - moving massive amounts of untaxed monies from out of countries economies.

In America alone the revenue generated by the illicit drug trade tops the 3-4 largest corporations earnings combined.

In the wake of this, societies are left with greater and greater costs for law enforcement, incarcerations and violence on many levels. All paid for with tax dollars.

I don’t advocate drug use but I certainly cannot advocate laws that actually support the strengthening of organized crime groups, violence, community and family breakdown.

Politicians, lawyers, police, judges all involved with enforcement side have helped to achieve the pinnacle of stupidity in creating a solution far greater a threat than the original problem.

To often well meaning fools cost us far too much and are all too arrogant to admit their collective failure, instead resorting to motivational fear of the masses to support their continued nonsense and personal financial gain.

It is a sad day when children have far greater access to illicit drugs than they do healthy food, safe environments, cigarettes or alcohol or even their own parents.

How much could societies save if we chose to actually deal with the problem rather than create a never ending problem? How much poverty could be eliminated? How much debt could we reduce? How much violence could we prevent? How many families could remain intact? How many people currently marginalized, could be of greater use to society? How many children would be saved from early exposure?

Combine the lost revenue from the drug sales and the cost of enforcement and we could actually do something meaningful.

How much and how fast could Americas debt be paid with this money alone?

It is time for responsible leadership to stand up around the world and stop the legal support network for organized crime and the violent devolution of our communities, countries our world, our families.
ust say NO to stupidity and YES to intelligent responsibility.

What a pity for Cambodians - and when much of the rest of the world is moving towards review of inefficient drug laws and adoption of public health rather than punitive approaches to drug use. Being involved, even indirectly, in capital punishment for non-violent drug offences is increasingly seen as backward and brutal. Is there any chance of final reviews softening the final product? Is an English copy of the current version available?

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