Inhumane treatment and injustice in rehabilitation centres in Laos

A new report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has exposed inhumane conditions at a drug treatment centre in the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Furthermore, there seems to be little evidence that the centre is actually rehabilitating drug users and in many cases individuals are worse off when they the leave centre and likely to continue using drugs.

Compulsory detention in order to treat drug use or addiction does not comply with international recommendations for drug dependence treatment and its use has been denounced by the majority of major international organizations, such as the Global Fund, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that deal with the issues that surround drug use.  Often the conditions in the centres, including the one highlighted by the HRW report, do not fulfil international standards on human rights. In the case of Laos, which has signed and ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), there are obvious human rights violations evident in the report, specifically the right against arbitrary arrest and detention and also that “the penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.” An issue that should be of concern to the UNODC and the United States Embassy in Laos is that the glossy pamphlet or the Somsanga detention centres bears their logos. Furthermore HRW states in the report, that international doner actually funded the construction of some of the buildings of the centre and the UNODC have funded some of the services.

According to the report, which is based on interviews with 12 former detainees and 8 former or current staff members, the system in which detainees find themselves inside the Somsanga detention centre bypasses any type of judicial process. This is alarming as the detainees are effectively imprisoned and prevented to leave by the police. The report also highlights that the lack of a fair judicial process is exploited by the authorities and the centre is also used to detain members of society that are deemed “undesirable” by the village militia. These people could be homeless people, beggars, street children, alcoholics and people with mental health problems. This practice was used especially during the 25th Southeast Asia Games that took place in Vientiane in 2009. One former inmate testified that 1 in 5 people detained in the centre where not drug users.

The information gained from the interviewees highlights the ill treatment of detainees and also high rates of suicide or suicide attempts. The methods that inmates used to commit suicide are shocking and one wonders how bad conditions inside the detention centre have to be that the inmates would choose to end their lives in this way.  The interviewees tell of inmates ingesting broken glass, detergent or hanging themselves from the bars of their cells. However the responses by the authorities to the high suicide rates in the centre have been insufficient. An interviewee tells the HRW team that, “some [detainees], they jumped from the buildings. Now in the buildings you can’t jump because they have protection grills on the balconies.” The response by the centre authorities to a man who hung himself in a shower cubicle was to take the doors of the showers. The facts that surfaced during these interviews are proof of the complete disregard the centre authorities have for the inmates. This is completely the opposite of how a rehabilitation centre should function.

Treatment for problematic drug use is a thorough process that should be based on an evidence-based approach to drug rehabilitation. The motivation for imprisoning detainees in the centre could lie in the Laos government’s pledge that the country will be “drug free” by 2015. This is inline with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pledge that the region, of which a large part of which forms the golden triangle, one of the biggest opium producing regions in the world. There is therefore a lot of political pressure on village authorities to become “drug free”. This often translates to villages cleansing themselves of drug users and a lot of pressure is put on families to denounce members to the authorities, regardless of whether they indeed have problematic drug use or are infrequent drug users.

Detaining drug users in inhumane detention centres is an inefficient policy and will not make problems of drug user in society disappear. In 2010 at the 18th International AIDS Conference (held in Vienna, Austria) the Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, called for the closure of all compulsory drug detention centers. The existence of detention centres such as this is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed.