This post first appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Thailand's english-language daily, The Nation.
At the end of January, Human Rights Watch released a report on abuses throughout Cambodia's system of drug detention centres. Our report detailed terrible abuses and sadistic violence. The adults and children we interviewed told us of being beaten, whipped and punished with electric shocks.
Unicef provides direct funding for one of the centres, where drug-users and children - some reportedly as young as four - are brought in from the streets. When we briefed them four months before we released our report, they told us they were shocked. They promised to look into the abuses. Children who had been detained at the Unicef-funded centre told us of being tortured. They told us of being forced to do exhausting military exercises, work on construction projects and even dance naked for guards.
We expected Unicef to press for a thorough and independent investigation and to demand that those responsible for the abuses be held accountable. We hoped they would conduct a review of their funding, programming and activities. We expected them to press the Cambodian government more broadly about the detention of children alongside adults.
What actually happened? Not much. Unicef issued a statement when our report was released saying that past reviews conducted by the Ministry of Social Affairs - the ministry running the centre - had found no evidence of "major violations". Over the next few weeks Unicef officials defended their support for the centre, saying that they monitor conditions in the centre "from time to time". Unicef's director in Cambodia, Richard Bridle, said that they "look for the positive". At the same time, Bridle conceded that he "wouldn't be surprised" if abuses were taking place, and that these kinds of abuses are "typical in centres [such] as this one".
Last week, Unicef officials visited the centre - the Choam Chao Youth Rehabilitation Centre, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh - and then told reporters that Human Rights Watch had made a mistake. Mr Bridle said that on their visit, Unicef staff had joked with children being held there and found them "engaging". Bridle told the Phnom Penh Post that "there is no culture of violence" at the centre. He pointed to an as-yet-unreleased internal assessment by the Ministry of Social Affairs and to statements made by a non-governmental organisation that provides some services in the centre (and which is also financed by Unicef) to suggest that we had our facts wrong.
It's a tactic we are more accustomed to seeing from repressive governments than from Unicef officials: A quick trip, an internal investigation and an announcement of no wrongdoing.
In contrast to Unicef's cursory review, our investigation was independent and thorough. We conducted detailed, in-depth interviews with 53 people who had been detained in drug detention centres within the last three years, 17 of whom had been detained at the centre Unicef supports. Our interviews were conducted outside of the centres, where children could feel safe from possible retaliation for telling us of their experiences.
While Unicef claims that the Choam Chao centre is "open" and "voluntary", here is what a few children who had been held at the centre told us:
"I tried to escape but my feet got stuck on the barbed wire. I was re-arrested. They beat me with a rattan stick until I lost consciousness and they poured water on me. They said, each time, "Don't run again!" Teap (14 years old);
"As soon as I arrived, the Social Affairs staff kicked and beat me. I don't know why. He said, 'You stay here. Do not run! There are high walls here. If you get re-arrested, I won't be responsible if your leg is broken.'" Chambok (17 years old);
"They shocked the big kids who tried to escape. I saw when they escaped and when they got shocked. They shocked them a lot." Chamnauth (15 years old);
"If anyone tried to escape, he would be punished. Some people managed to escape, some didn't. Most who were punished for escaping would be beaten unconscious. Beatings like this happened every day." M'noh (16 years old).
All of these children were detained during the period when the centre was getting funds from Unicef.
We're not the only ones presenting evidence of abuse. In the same article that quotes Richard Bridle saying that "These were not brutalised kids", the reporter from the Phnom Phen Post quoted a drug-user who had been at the Unicef-funded centre a year ago: "They used sticks. They unlocked the door, entered and started beating. They punched me in the face. They smashed my head against the wall. They beat me three times with the cable in the same place. You could see the flesh come out. It was like pieces of flesh from a fish." He then showed the journalist his scars.
We have briefed Unicef four times, before our report and afterwards, both in Cambodia and New York. It's been six months since we first presented our findings, methodology and recommendations. While Unicef officials defend their colleagues at the Ministry of Social Affairs, who is defending the children at the centre they fund, or at the 10 other drug detention centres throughout the country? When will Unicef decide to listen to the voices of the children who have been beaten and tortured? When will they support our call for a thorough, independent and credible investigation?