UNICEF faces broad scrutiny

LOCAL rights group says it has proof that UNICEF resources have been used to transport illegally detained children to a controversial drug rehabilitation centre accused of human rights abuses. The news has sparked renewed demands for the UN agency to review its funding, and a representative of the European Union is calling for an investigation into whether EU-funded assets were used in carrying out possible “human rights violations”.

Local rights group Licadho on Wednesday released photos that it said showed children arrested in police sweeps being taken to the Youth Rehabilitation Centre in Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao district. Photos supplied to the Post show a white van that Licadho says was driven by staffers from the Ministry of Social Affairs, which oversees the facility. In one photo, the words “Child-friendly justice system” are displayed on the side of the van in English and Khmer. In another, the words “Provided with the support of UNICEF and the EC”, or European Commission, can be seen. “Officials told our monitor at the time the van would take the children to the Youth Rehabilitation Centre in Choam Chao because the children were suspected drug users,” Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said. Pilorge said the photos were taken at the municipal Social Affairs Department on May 21, 2009, the morning after a police street sweep. It came days before an EU-ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, a high-profile summit that prompted authorities to pick up of homeless people, sex workers and drug users in the capital’s Daun Penh district, rights groups said at the time. Rafael Dochao Moreno, the charge d’affaires for the Delegation of the European Union to Cambodia, said the EU has no ongoing projects with rehabilitation centres or the Ministry of Social Affairs.

“Ending in 2007, the EU funded a project through UNICEF … which included the purchase of vehicles that were, as is usual in our projects, turned over to the beneficiaries at the end of the project,” Dochao Moreno said in a statement. He expressed concern over this apparent use of donor funds. “If any illegal activities, especially human rights violations, are being conducted with former EU assets, this is an important matter and should be part of the investigations and eventual prosecution by the Cambodian authorities,” Dochao Moreno said.

‘No major violations’

Officials with UNICEF did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. A statement issued Tuesday in response to questions from the Post about abuse allegations at the Choam Chao facility defended the agency’s support of the Social Affairs Ministry and what it says is a voluntary centre. Assessments in 2005, 2007 and 2008 aimed at ensuring “that children’s rights are not violated within these facilities” revealed that “no major violations were reported or documented,” the statement said. On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report stating it believes that there are 11 government-run rehabilitation centres, inlcuding Chaom Chao, in which detainees face forced confinement, violent assaults and poor treatment for their addictions. HRW renewed its demand that international agencies re-evaluate funding that may assist the controversial treatment centres. “UNICEF’s mandate is child protection. This is an outrageous violation of that trust,” said Joe Amon, HRW’s director of health and human rights. Amon said HRW met with UNICEF in September 2009 and told them of the allegations of abuse based on interviews with detainees.
“If they have failed to investigate or take steps to prevent these abuses, they have failed to fulfill their mandate and clearly abandoned these children,” he said. Multiple levels of government authorities who run the various centres have denied allegations that people held in the facilities are abused.