AusAID link to human rights abuse in Vietnamese labour camps

By Morgan Macdonald | 27 Sep 11

A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report alleges that Australia’s aid agency AusAID partly funds drug rehabilitation centres in Vietnam that have committed human rights violations. The report claims drug users admitted voluntarily by family members, or involuntarily after being detained by police or authorities, are subjected to forced labour, inhumane and degrading treatment, and torture.

The HRW report alleges that the Australian government, among other donor governments and NGOs, are supporting these centres financially through medical services and by the provision of training. AusAID and CARE Australia support work in these centres through the HIV/AIDS Asia Regional Program (HAARP).

The issue is intimately linked to the culture surrounding drugs in Vietnam. The United Nations Asia and Pacific Amphetamine Type Stimulants Information Centre (APAIC) outlines how drug use patterns have changed in recent years from “low levels of cannabis and opium use to high levels of heroin use and increasing use of amphetamine-type stimulants”. Many South-East Asian countries have responded by adopting harsh drug laws.

“Largely being tough on drugs is not controversial in Vietnam” says Professor Pip Nicholson, Director of the Comparative Legal Studies Program at Melbourne University’s Asian Law Centre. “The policies would appear to have support from the broader population.”

In this communist country, 123 centres formally classified as “Centres for Social Education and Labour”, or “Centres for Post-Rehabilitation Management” supposedly provide treatment and rehabilitation for drug dependency. The centres use ‘labour therapy’ in which detainees produce manufacturing and agricultural products as part of the rehabilitation process. Detainees are paid only a fraction of the Vietnamese minimum wage, and the money they do receive is further reduced through deductions made by the centre for food and administration costs. Some individuals earn only $3USD a month, meaning that they often owe money to the centre once they are discharged.

34 in-depth, confidential interviews with recent detainees conducted by HRW reveal the harsh and degrading treatment of those battling addiction. Detainees in a cashew processing centre were given a daily quota of nuts to husk and peel. If they refused to work they were beaten with truncheons, or shocked with electric batons (both of which have been identified as a form of torture by the special rapporteur on torture).

In other cases individuals are put in “punishment rooms” (either solitary confinement, or small, overcrowded cells with up to 30 people) for not working or for violating centre rules. Detainees can spend up to four months in one of these rooms. Tra Linh was in her 20s when she was locked in solitary confinement for a month. “There no water in the toilet for showering or female hygiene. I was only given rice and soy sauce, no meat or fish. At night I had no blanket and was cold and hungry and afraid of ghosts”.

The report also says that the circumstances in which people enter the centres violate provisions on informed consent and the right to health under the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Political Rights. Families and individuals are often coerced or tricked into signing documents they don’t understand. Once an individual has entered, regardless of whether they entered ‘voluntarily’, they are not free to leave. The detention can, and often is, mandatorily extended for one to three years at a time. Those forced to enter the rehabilitation programs report having neither access to a lawyer, nor recourse to any review process during either the initial detention, or the extension process. Children may also be arbitrarily detained and forced to work.

In a recent interview with The Age, an AusAID spokeswoman said the Australian government has been urging Vietnam to close the centres. In the same article Julia Newton-Howes, chief executive of CARE Australia, justified its involvement by saying the centres “aim to reduce [addicts’] marginalisation within the community, their vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases, increase their access to support services and promote their re-integration into the community”.

However, the HRW report suggests that “different forms of involvement in centres (whether direct of indirect) build the capacity of such centres, thus undermining the need to close them. Funding the provision of healthcare services, irrespective of intention, also effectively has the impact of subsidising the costs of detention, which means the centres can be more profitable.”

The report calls for a review of all funding and assistance to Vietnam’s drug detention centres. It asks donors and NGOs to call for all detainees to be released, investigations into the abuses, violators to be held accountable, and compensation for detainees.

Significant changes as Vietnam shifts to a more market-orientated economy have resulted in the country’s legal system becoming more comprehensive. Yet Professor Nicholson cautions, “More transparency does not necessarily mean less harsh. It also does not preclude arbitrary decision making.”

In light of Vietnam’s improved capacity to ensure its own legislative and administrative needs, it may be difficult to determine what course of action will best protect the human rights of Vietnamese drug users.

The question now is how can AusAID and Australian NGOs promote change that ensures human rights are respected? Is it through ongoing collaboration or through the more drastic means advocated by HRW?

Patrick Kilby, lecturer and coordinator of the Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development Program at Australian National University, says the dilemma for aid agencies is “whether they should ameliorate a poor system or not involve themselves?”

He criticises the HRW report for failing to take into account the broader context of administrative detention and criminal law in Vietnam. He points out that the practice of detaining people against their will has also been revealed recently in the Victorian Mental Health system.

Finally, Kilby questions the consequences should the centres close. “Does this mean the detainees would be subject to Vietnamese criminal law and potentially be placed in a much harsher prison or face the death penalty? The report does not canvas these options and possible consequences.”

It appears likely that products from these centres have ended up in Australia. HRW investigators found a bag in Vietnam with a New South Wales address. HRW is calling on the Vietnamese government to release a list of companies that currently work, or have in the past have worked with drug detention centres.

Swiss company Vestergaard Frandsen, upon finding out that mosquito bed nets imported from Vietnam were produced by drug detainees, terminated a relationship with five Vietnamese sub-contractors.

It remains to be seen what action if any will be taken by AusAID and CARE Australia.

There must be greater accountability of both aid and export manufacturing to ensure human rights violations are not supported through either our aid programs or what we buy. However, local support for harsh drug laws, as well as a growing capacity for self-governance, and a broader policy of administrative detention, raise the practical question of whether the withdrawal of Australian aid would help or hinder the realisation of human rights for those trying end their drug addiction in Vietnam.

The full Human Rights Watch report can be accessed here.

Morgan Macdonald is a graduate from the Australian National University’s Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development and an independent researcher who has worked with Melbourne based NGOs and academics from La Trobe University. He is passionate about refugee issues and development strategies that work towards the realisation of human rights.