BANGKOK - A leading international human rights group has accused the United States government, the World Bank and other international donors of indirectly funding forced labor in Vietnam’s drug rehabilitation centers.
In a report released Wednesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that Vietnam’s system of forced labor centers for people who use drugs has expanded over the last decade.
"In 2000, there were 56 drug detention centers across Vietnam; by early 2011 that number had risen to 123 centers," the 121-page report said, adding that in that period over 309,000 people passed through the centers.
The report: 'Rehab Archipelago: Forced and Other Abuses in Drug Detention Centers in Southern Vietnam’ said state-run drug detention centers, mandated to treat and rehabilitate drug users, are "little more than forced labor camps where drug users work six days a week processing cashew, sewing garments, or manufacturing items."
The centers have been sustained by a variety of international donors none of which has made objections. "The funding from international donors is effectively subsidizing the costs of detaining people," Joe Amon, HRW’s director of health and human rights, told IPS.
In Vietnam, one of the world’s five remaining countries ruled by a communist party, there were an estimated 125,000 injecting drug users in 2010. In addition to these heroin addicts, drug users seek a high from cannabis, opium and methamphetamines.
"It is wrong that international organizations working with these centers don’t have monitoring mechanisms to detect serious abuses against their supposed ‘beneficiaries’," Amon said. "Despite all the donors who are engaged, there’s silence around the issue of forced labor."
The HRW report points a finger at the bilateral and multilateral donors who were drawn to Vietnam to provide detainees with HIV prevention, care and information; provide drug dependency services; or fund training for the centers’ staff.
Donors named and shamed include the U.S. government’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR); U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID); the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; the World Bank; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC); and Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).
According to HRW, Vietnam is one of the 15 countries supported by PEPFAR, which is expected to pump in close to 102 million dollars in 2011. Vietnam’s primary donor for HIV/AIDS programs is the U.S. government through PEPFAR.
The World Bank has provided funds since 2005 for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment activities in the centers, while UNODC began implementing programs in the centers in 2007.
Both the Bank and the U.N. agency deny knowledge of forced labor in the drug rehabilitation centers.
"We have not received any reports of human rights violations in the drug rehabilitation clinics supported by (our) project," Victoria Kwakwa, the Bank’s Vietnam country director, said in an interview. "If we had, we would have conducted a supervision mission to ensure that bank policies were met and concerns fully examined."
Gary Lewis, head of the UNODC’s East Asia and Pacific office, said: "Prior to the publication of the HRW report, UNODC had not received any specific reports of suspected violations of human rights in administrative detention centers in Vietnam."
HRW’s report of alleged forced labor in the centers "would constitute a violation of human rights," he told IPS. "UNODC is very concerned about the reports of illegal arrest, arbitrary detention and torture of people in these (centers)."
Consequently, the stories of victims like Que Phong, in his late 20s, have not reached the ears of the leaders in the international humanitarian industry. His stay in a southern Vietnam rehabilitation center for heroin addiction resulted in "five years of forced labor, torture, and abuse."
"During his time at the center, Que Phong was given a daily quota of cashews to husk and peel," the HRW report says. "Although the caustic resin from the cashews burned his hands, he was forced to work for six hours a day."
In fact, the tens of thousands of forced labor victims like Que Phong in the rehabilitation centers have been a boon to Vietnam’s cashew trade, enabling it to retain its place as the world’s leading cashew nut exporter.
Foreign earnings from this cash crop, an estimated 1.4 billion dollars in 2010, have been largely due to leading importers from the U.S. and the European Union – both of which have laws that come down hard on products made under forced labor.
What is more, these centers, which had their origins in the "reeducation through labor" camps in 1975, condemn drug addicts to abusive years by circumventing the courts. "People are commonly held in the centers after police detain them or family members ‘volunteer’ them for detention," states HRW.
Tim de Meyer at the International Labor Organization said it is a picture of abuse that is typical of forced labor. "Any situation in which people are detained without having been found guilty of a specific offense and convicted by an independent court and are subsequently made to work is a forced labor situation," Meyer, a specialist on international labor standards, told IPS.
"Even if people have been found guilty and convicted according to the rule of law, they should not be made to work for private interests, unless they have formally agreed to do so and enjoy regular working conditions," he added.