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International Money and Torture in the Name of Drug Treatment

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The extent of torture and ill-treatment in the war on terror is well known. It has been the subject of campaigns, court cases, news features, enormous public attention, and, rightly, prosecutions.

Torture and ill-treatment in the war on drugs is also widespread, but is often invisible, hidden behind a narrative of existential threat, and behind the systematic dehumanisation and marginalisation of people who are drug dependent.

A new report by the UN's torture watchdog is a major contribution to bringing such abuses to light. Presented on 4 March before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the report makes clear that for hundreds of thousands of drug users, beating, sexual violence, solitary confinement, and other cruel and torturous practices happen in centres supposedly for drug dependence treatment and rehabilitation.

These centres have been supported by donor nations blindly throwing scarce financial aid at abusive regimes in the name of responding to the drug threat. This too serves to keep the abuse hidden, international funding providing a façade of legitimacy to illegitimate and illegal practices.

In his report to the UN, which focuses on torture in healthcare settings, Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, calls on governments to immediately shut down abusive drug detention centres and to investigate alleged abuses in privately run facilities. Importantly, Mendez calls on donors to cease support for the operation of these centres or the creation of any new ones.

Monitoring groups like Human Rights Watch have published several reports about the shocking conditions in these so-called treatment centres. In Vietnam and China, people are detained against their will, forced to work long hours in the service of private companies and punished if they fail to meet strict work quotas. In Vietnam, each centre is mandated to have a punishment room, where former detainees tell of kneeling on sharp stones or being held in stress positions. In Cambodia, children and adults have been beaten with cables and raped, forced to donate blood, and physically punished. In Laos, researchers learned of numerous successful and attempted suicides in the centres, including by ingesting glass, swallowing soap, or hanging. In all of these instances, there is little in the way of evidence-based drug treatment - forced labour, military-style exercises and isolation are the methods used.

It is therefore no surprise that Mendez has called for the centres to be shut down and for no more money to go towards them. The surprise is that despite clear evidence, known for years, donors have continued to fund them.

It is something my own organization, Harm Reduction International, has specifically investigated in a report produced last year. We found, for example, that governments, including the US through its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), have contributed money repeatedly over the past decade for the construction and renovation of drug detention centres in Laos. Money has even been provided to build the fences that prevent detainees from escaping the squalid conditions.

As recently as last year, months after Human Rights Watch exposed serious abuses at a "model" centre in the capital (known as Somsanga), INL gave another grant to support that very centre. Earlier last year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) sponsored a fashion show to raise money for the centre.

In Vietnam, funds from Australia, Luxembourg and Sweden were channelled through the UNODC to "build the capacity" of centre guards in drug treatment approaches. Surely we should not have to point out that those who beat you in the morning will not be good counsellors in the afternoon.

At a time when global health spending is poor, this is not just money wasted, it is money spent on making things considerably worse.

Detention in the name of treatment is fundamentally flawed. Worse, it is fundamentally abusive. Renovations to buildings aren't going to stop the abuses inside, and training for guards won't address the fact that people are detained en masse against their will, forced to work for the profit of centre managers, and abused for infractions of rules.

Twelve UN agencies, including UNODC, issued a statement last year calling for drug detention centres to be closed and pledging to help support humane and evidence-based treatment alternatives in the community.

Donor governments must support this and take every measure to ensure that their money will not be spent on abuse in the name of treatment. A cloak of international funding only serves to keep the abuse hidden.