This post first appeared in the March 8, 2010 issue of Cambodia's English language daily, The Phnom Penh Post. For recent coverage of this issue, see interviews with UNICEF and Human Rights Watch by France 24, and Radio Australia (audio).
My 8-year-old son was understandably confused earlier this month. He was sitting in my lap as I read news that the United Nations agency responsible for protecting children's rights was being criticized for supporting Cambodian detention centers where children are subject to arbitrary detention, torture, violent beatings and other sadistic punishments.
"UNICEF is torturing kids, Dad?" he asked.
Investigations by Human Rights Watch had uncovered widespread and serious abuses in Cambodia's drug detention centers, including a "youth rehabilitation" center run by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The news accounts were critical of UNICEF's support for the Ministry and for the youth center at Choam Chao. UNICEF's Cambodia office was vague and equivocal in response to the reports of torture and abuse, but no, I told my son, UNICEF was not torturing kids.
Our report was not the first to describe abuses in Ministry of Social Affairs run centers. In 2008 a local human rights organization had reported that guards raped women and severely beat those who tried to escape or complained about conditions. The report documented that two people, possibly more, were beaten to death by guards.
As with our report, the government held no one accountable and UNICEF -- which was informed of these allegations -- continued its support to the Ministry. The Social Affairs Ministry claimed that UNICEF's support was proof that there were no abuses.
In the recent Human Rights Watch report, children described being picked up in street sweeps and taken to detention centers: "They didn't tell me why they arrested me... I never saw a lawyer... They simply put me into the truck and I arrived at Choam Chao" one child told us.
The children described horrific abuses at Choam Chao.
Children spoke of being given electrical shocks, beaten and forced to dance naked. One child who had been held there described the "rehabilitation" they received: "they train [kids] like soldiers to harden their bodies," he said. "The training is to make them strong, to make them stay away from drugs... If they fell out of line while rolling [on the ground], the guards kicked them in the head."
In September 2009, Human Rights Watch briefed the UNICEF office in Cambodia on the abuses we had documented. They said that they were shocked and they promised to investigate. Four months later UNICEF told us that they had investigated only by asking Ministry of Social Affairs staff if the reports were true; government officials had denied the abuses. More than a month since our report has been released, UNICEF's Cambodia office continues to say that they believe that the Choam Chao center is "open" and "voluntary". The Cambodian government again cited UNICEF's support to suggest that detention centers are not mistreating kids.
The suggestion that these centers are open and voluntary defies credulity, and local reporters have quickly refuted that contention, interviewing kids who have been abused and detained against their will. "They just didn't want us to stay on the street," one former child who had been held at Choam Chao told the Phnom Penh Post. "They pointed at the car, and then they pushed me in."
Following the release of our report, many UN agencies spoke critically about the centers. WHO called them ineffective and UNAIDS said that they would like to see all the centers closed. On February 16, the UN announced that it would provide support to the government for community-based, voluntary rehabilitation centers, provided that the government respected human rights. The announcement declared that there could be no illegal detention, abusive treatment or torture.
Unfortunately, the UN couldn't muster the strength to say what human rights law requires them to say -- that people currently detained without legal grounds should be released. Equally disappointing, they had nothing to say about the need to hold torturers accountable.
This has long been the approach that UNICEF's Cambodia office has taken: ignoring credible reports of abuses and engaging with the government, with a vague hope that the abuses will stop. Just after our report was released, UNICEF's representative in Cambodia, Richard Bridle, explained to one reporter that UNICEF's approach was "to look for the positive."
Part of looking for the positive seems to be ignoring the negative, even when that includes the torture of kids. No wonder my son was confused.
I have great respect for the work that UNICEF does around the world. I would like to believe they are truly shocked by our findings, that they are looking into them and that they will withdraw their support from the Social Affairs Ministry unless there is accountability. I had hoped that they would use their unique position to advocate for the immediate closure of all such centers and work to ensure that they are replaced by effective, genuinely voluntary, community-based alternatives. Quite simply, to make sure that children in Cambodia are protected from mistreatment and abuse.
After a series of meetings with UNICEF representatives in Phnom Penh and in New York, I am losing that hope.
My son, and hundreds of children suffering from torture and ill treatment in drug detention centers across Cambodia, are waiting for UNICEF to speak out.