Why Is the U.S. Funding International Drug Rehabs Known for Torture and Abuse?

The United States is not just funding an abusive drug war at home; taxpayer funds are propping up violently oppressive "drug treatment" centers that act more like detainment camps abroad. At the U.S.-backed Somsanga Rehabilitation Center in Laos, detainees are subjected to shocking physical abuse, including beating to the point of unconsciousness for showing withdrawal symptoms or attempting to escape. Allegations of sexual assault are also rampant.

According to reports, younger residents are raped by older detainees whom the center gives power to enforce rules and regulations. One Somsanga detainee interviewed by Human Rights Watch said he saw "supervisors rape boys between the ages of 10 and 14." Children are not exempt from indefinite detainment in these camps. UNICEF-sponsored investigations in Laos found 150 detainees under 18 in 2003, and more than 600 children in 2006.

Despite calls from human rights organizations, the United States has continued to pump money into the Somsanga Rehabilitation Center.

In March of last year, 12 United Nations agencies, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Health Organization, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and UNAIDS, issued a joint statement calling for the closure of drug-user detention centers where they identified grave human rights violations. Abused patients, perhaps better described as inmates, should be released "without delay," the report urged. Nonetheless, a new report from UN's special expert on torture, Juan Mendez, explains that many nations, including the US, continue to send hundreds of thousands of dollars to "rehabilitation" centers that act as hubs for indefinitely holding and systematically abusing marginalized people.  

 "These centers continue to operate often with direct or indirect support and assistance from international donors without any adequate human rights oversight," the UN report says. Detainment in punitive drug-free centers still "exponentially" exceeds evidence-based treatment for drug dependence, Mendez said.

Mendez notes that "numerous calls by various international and regional organizations to close compulsory drug detention centers" --  as well as several recommendations and resolutions from WHO, UNODC, and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs -- "are routinely ignored." 

This June, the U.S. agreed to donate an additional $400,000 to the Somsanga center. US officials heeded no warnings issued by at least three separate reports (2003 UNICEF report, 2004 WHO report, and 2011 Human Rights Watch report), each of which warned against the center's deplorable conditions and inhumane treatment of detainees. The UN report says past US funds have been used to build dormitories "to expand the capacity of the government to detain drug users, street children, and ethnic minorities," as well as fences surrounding the center.

“International donors claim that Somsanga is a legitimate drug treatment center,” Joe Amon, director of health and human rights at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release prompted by the UN report. “The reality is that people, including children and the homeless, are held in Somsanga against their will, behind barbed wire fences, and are beaten and brutalized.”   

Inside Somsanga

Human Rights Watch says that while only a minority of amphetamine-users (the most popular drug in Laos) actually become addicted, legislators pressure local officials to declare their villages “drug-free.” Eager to comply with public policy, village officials and locals request for detainment in Somsanga people who use drugs only occasionally and do not necessarily require rehabilitation. 

Located in Laos near the capital of Vientiane, Somsanga’s patients did not voluntarily commit to drug addiction rehabilitation, nor is there always evidence that they are drug addicts. Rather, Somsanga detainees are picked up by police or sent away by relatives bowing to pressure to cleanse their villages of drug users. The result is not more addicts in drug treatment, but the detainment of "beggars, homeless people, street children, and people with mental disabilities" without due cause. One detainee cited in the report says an arrest for being out too late landed him in Somsanga for nine months. 

“Somsanga is used as a dumping ground,” HRW director Joe Amon said in a press release. “The most vulnerable and marginalized of Lao society are picked up and held there to ‘clean the streets.’” The government even established a phone hotline to report beggars for detainment in Somsanga before the 25th Southeast Asia (SEA) games. 

The so-called rehabilitation centers are far from health-oriented. Inmates receive no health screenings upon arrival, and despite high rates of skin infection and STIs, few are referred to treatment centers. Prohibitions on activities like sex, tattoos and piercing are ineffective, while clean syringes and condoms remain unavailable. Malnutrition and inadequate funding for food has been recorded. 

In 2008, a US embassy-funded women’s rehabilitation facility opened its doors at Somsanga. While the experiences of women in these detainment camps are said to be similar to men, their detainments are not separately documented. Nonetheless, lack of health screenings and sanitary conditions suggest that women may not receive adequate reproductive healthcare. 

Somsanga does not follow any protocol for intake or release, subjecting detainees to confusion about why they were arrested in the first place. While most leave after three months to a year, detainees caught for the second time are sentenced to at least a year, and the third offense translates into a two-year sentence.

Once in Somsanga, detainees who have never seen a lawyer or a judge are not free to leave or protest their detainment. Some have tried to escape by attempting suicide -- eating glass, swallowing soap or hanging. Five of 12 former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had witnessed suicides or suicide attempts. 

A staff member at Somsanga estimates that about 70 percent of Somsanga's detainees had been at the center in the past.

History of American Assistance

Opium use is a tradition in Laos, which has been one of the world's greatest opium producers since the 1950s. Its cultivation was so integral to the economy and culture of Lao people living in the highlands that in 1995, Lao Commission for Drug Control and Supervision (LCDC) told Westerners who thought Laos was not making a valid effort to eradicate opium that, "smoking opium is no different from the way you in the West drink wine." 

In May 1999, the US and Laos agreed on a plan to eliminate opium production in Laos within six years. Around the same time, traffickers were carrying methamphetamine tablets across the Mekong River from Thailand, circulating them to unemployed youth, sex workers and nightclub partiers in Vientiane. Internationally funded anti-drug efforts continued, however, to focus on opium. By around 2005, scores of opium addicts in withdrawal were turning to newly available methamphetamine tablets. Marketed as a substitute for opium, methamphetamine became the most widely used drug in Laos. Popular among laborers, students and farm workers, methamphetamine was also used to increase energy and strength. 

The Somsanga Drug Rehabilitation Center first opened in 1999, under the control of the police. Power shifted to the mayor of Vientiane in 2002, but grave problems persisted. A 2004 WHO report found unclear admission/discharge criteria, inadequate funds for food, and medical withdrawal from methamphetamine that was "available but sporadic in its administration." By that time, there were 2,658 detainees in Somsanga, more than 10 times the number in 1999. Following criticism, in 2007, there were just over 1,000 detainees. Despite poor conditions, a 2007 US State Department report said that, while CDTCS are better than prisons, "Conditions are nonetheless spartan, lengths of detention indefinite and the government does not permit regular independent monitoring." 

International Problem Calls for International Solution

Human Rights Watch is calling for the Lao government and international donors to address the despicable conditions in Somsanga. International donors, HRW says, must publicly call for Somsanga's closure, an investigation into human rights abuses, accountability for those responsible for any violations, and remedies for detainees who suffered physical or mental harm. Additionally, the report says, they must review funding to stop facilitating policies that violate international human rights law, and instead support the expansion of voluntary humane care, including separate facilities for children and women. 

HRW calls for the Lao government to pressure the Commission on Drug Control to release detainees because their detention "cannot be justified on legal or health grounds," and instruct the Commission to permanently close Somsanga and launch immediate, independent investigations into allegations of arbitrary detainment and inhumane treatment. The Lao government, HRW recommends, should instruct the Ministry of Health to expand access to voluntary, community-based drug dependency treatment.


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