The Cambodian government’s three-year long “war on drugs” campaign has fuelled a rising tide of human rights abuses, dangerously overfilled detention facilities and led to an alarming public health situation – even more so as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds – while failing in its stated objective of curbing drug use, a new investigative report by Amnesty International published today (13 May) reveals.
The new 78-page report, Substance abuses: The human cost of Cambodia’s anti-drug campaign, documents how the authorities prey on poor and marginalized people, arbitrarily carry out arrests, routinely subject suspects to torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and dispatch those who can’t buy their freedom to severely overcrowded prisons and pseudo “rehabilitation centres” in which detainees are denied healthcare and are subjected to severe abuse.
“Cambodia’s ‘war on drugs’ is an unmitigated disaster – it rests upon systematic human rights abuses and has created a bounty of opportunities for corrupt and poorly-paid officials in the justice system, while doing nothing for public health and safety”, said Nicholas Bequelin, Regional Director at Amnesty International.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, launched his anti-drugs campaign in January 2017, just weeks after a state visit by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, during which the two leaders pledged to cooperate in combatting drugs. According to government officials, the campaign aims to reduce drug use and related harms in Cambodia, including by arresting people who use drugs en masse. As recently as March 2020, Interior Minister Sar Kheng called for legal action against all “drug addicts and dealers in small-scale drug use and distribution cases.”
Yet, like the Philippines’ so-called “war on drugs”, this campaign is rife with egregious human rights violations that are disproportionately affecting poor and marginalized people – irrespective of whether or not they use drugs.
“Using abusive approaches to punish people who use drugs is not only wrong, it is utterly ineffective. It is high time that Cambodian authorities heed the widely available scientific evidence showing that all-punitive law enforcement campaigns simply exacerbate social harms”, Nicholas Bequelin.
Two parallel systems, one devastating campaign and no due process
Inhumane detention conditions
Torture in drug detention centres
Although drug detention centres claim to provide treatment for people with drug dependence, in practice they operate as sites of abuse. Every individual interviewed by Amnesty International provided detailed accounts of physical abuse amounting to torture or other ill-treatment committed by centre staff or so-called “room leaders” – inmates entrusted by staff to enforce discipline.
Thyda, who was held in the Orkas Khnom drug detention centre in Phnom Penh during 2019, told Amnesty International: “This [violence] happened to everyone and it was normal. Violence like this was part of the daily routine; part of their programme.”
Another, Sarath, described his first day in a drug detention centre, where he was sent at the age of 17: “As soon as the guard left, the room leader started to beat me. I was knocked unconscious so I can’t remember what happened after that.”
Drug detention centres have also been dogged by reports of sexual violence and deaths in custody. Amnesty International’s investigation uncovered multiple new allegations of such deaths. Phanith, a former room leader, told Amnesty International how he witnessed an inmate “chained by the hands and the feet so that he could not move around. And the building leader beat him like that until he died.”
Time to end punitive approaches to people who use drugs
The Cambodian authorities’ hard-line approach to people who use drugs has failed in its primary aim of reducing drug use and related harms, and instead created a catastrophic public health and human rights crisis for the country’s poorest and most at-risk populations.
Yet there are clear, evidence-based alternatives. International drug policy has shifted in recent years and led to sweeping reforms in favour of evidence-based alternatives that better protect public health and human rights, including the decriminalization of use and possession of drugs for personal use. The Cambodian Ministry of Health has recently taken some tentative steps in the right direction by increasing the availability of evidence-based treatment in community settings.
However, it is essential that all compulsory drug detention centres be shut down promptly and permanently. People detained there must be released immediately with sufficient provisions of health and social services made available to them.
Moreover, the Cambodian authorities should move without delay towards implementing the measures they committed to at the UN Human Rights Council in 2019, in order to put in place a new drug policy that shifts away from prohibition and fully protects the rights of people who use drugs and other affected communities.
“In Cambodia, and across the world, the so-called war on drugs has failed. But there are clear alternatives based on scientific evidence that better protect human rights. The Cambodian authorities must consign the abusive policies of arbitrary detention and criminalization to history and embrace a compassionate and effective new era of drug policy”, said Nicholas Bequelin.