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Following the Money in Asian Drug War Abuses, and Finding U.S. Aid

The United Nations, AIDS advocates, and drug treatment specialists have increasingly criticized detention centers—run by governments in Asia and private actors in Latin America and elsewhere—where those suspected of using illegal drugs are held under lock and key, beaten, humiliated, and forced to work in the name of treatment and rehabilitation. Now a Bloomberg editorial has asked the U.S., Australia, the European Union, and other donors to explain why they would use development aid to pay for abusive centers that all experts agree should be shut down.

Recent reports by Harm Reduction International and Human Rights Watch make it clear: to really see the disconnect between the rhetoric of drug control assistance and the reality of the international drug war, just follow the money. In Laos, a massive “drug treatment” center in the capital holds people who do not need drug treatment at all, including casual users, street children, and the mentally ill. Shockingly, the U.S. government—despite multiple earlier reports of problems in the center—helped to build and strengthen the facility, and held press conferences and embassy events to brag about it.

The UN also supports the center. In one particularly ugly effort to prettify the realities of this institution, this year the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) sponsored a fashion show to raise money for the center. Models walking the runway were no doubt unaware that those detained there for months suffer physical abuse or that suicide attempts by detainees are common. The UN and the U.S. Embassy can have no such excuse.

As Partners in Crime, the searing report by Harm Reduction International, makes clear, international aid is also used to facilitate extradition leading to executions in the name of drug control, “capacity building” in Vietnamese slave labor centers where drug users are beaten and tortured, and drafting of laws that enable detention without due process or right of appeal.

Use of international aid for drug detention is what philosopher Avishai Margolit calls a “rotten compromise”—assisting a system so fundamentally flawed that humanitarian support may inadvertently hurt in the name of help. One hopes that the U.S. government, which now says it is committed to moving to a public health approach to the drugs problems, can take a hard look at how good intentions have led to immoral investments in detention centers that are some of the worst relics of the drug war. 

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