Amnesty International criticises Cambodia’s war on drugs: How they covered it

Photo: Dickelbers / CC BY-SA

Amnesty International released a report condemning human rights abuses committed during Cambodia’s ongoing war on drugs. Here’s how the media covered the story.


Cambodia’s war on drugs, launched at the same time as Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s similar policy, has received considerably less press attention. It is sometimes called the region’s ‘forgotten’ war on drugs. However, Amnesty International (AI)this week shone fresh light onto the campaign with a damning report. Here’s how the region’s media covered the story.

Amnesty International laid bare shocking levels of abuse

Alleging “systematic human rights abuses”, AI called Cambodia’s war on drugs an “unmitigated disaster” which had presented opportunities for “corrupt and poorly-paid officials”. Unsurprisingly, its report said the campaign was failing to meet its objectives.

“The Cambodian government’s three-year long ‘war on drugs’ campaign has fuelled a rising tide of human rights abuses, dangerously overfilled detention facilities and led to an alarming public health situation—even more so as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds—while failing in its stated objective of curbing drug use,” the report said.

Showcasing testimonials from victims, it revealed how officers took bribes, forced confessions and beat those accused of taking or dealing drugs. It accused Cambodia of failing to act to ease overcrowding in its prisons as its neighbours Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand have.

Other victims came forward with their experiences

Media outlets picked up the story and spoke to other victims. Sun Narin, writing for VOA Cambodia, summarised AI’s findings and highlighted the plight of another victim named Samnang. He explained how his brother had been arrested and sentenced on flimsy evidence. Samnang is paying US$12,000 to get the case dropped.

It also included comments from Pech Pisey, Transparency International Cambodia executive director, who backed up AI’s claims by saying he was aware of officials seeking bribes from people wrongfully accused of taking drugs. “I think we try to have procedures to avoid such charges where they put people in prison immediately,” he urged.

Writing for Nikkei Asian Review, Shaun Turton and Kong Meta described Cambodia’s war on drugs as having been “largely unmarked by the international community” before highlighting some of the statistics that show the problems with the campaign, particularly with regard to prison overcrowding.

Sources: Amnesty International, Nikkei Asian Review, Prison Studies

The government rejected AI’s findings

The government rejected AI’s report, claiming it is inaccurate. The Khmer Times quoted Justice Ministry spokesman and Cambodian Human Rights Commission Vice-Chairman Chin Malin as saying, “We do not deny [the report] but we are still doubtful of the accuracy of the report. How did they do their research, collect information and come to their conclusion?”

He called for AI to come forward and share their evidence of wrongdoing with the government and pledged to take legal action if required. “Action will be taken against those who are guilty of committing wrongful acts,” he added.

Despite claiming his organisation had not received the report, National Authority for Combating Drugs Secretary-General General Meas Vyrith was quick to defend the campaign. “I acknowledge we have not perfected the process a 100 percent  (sic). Drugs is a global issues [sic] which every country is challenged with. They [AI] have already assumed the worst of us even if we have done good things,” he argued.

One official admitted that human rights were ‘put aside’

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak then went even further, telling Reuters that, “When it is an anti-drug campaign, there is never a respect for human rights. During the anti-drug campaign, human rights need be put aside, so it is clean.”

He also rejected AI’s claims that officials solicited bribes and arrested those who had done nothing wrong. However, the Reuters report revealed that some changes may be afoot. “Chin Malin, a spokesman at the Ministry of Justice, told Reuters the government planned to announce measures to address prison overcrowding next week,” it said.

Given the current concerns over the coronavirus, this would be the right place to start. However, having not yet released prisoners to ease overcrowding, Cambodia is well behind its fellow ASEAN members. There is a lot more it can do to address its drug problem and, as AI advises, there are more humane approaches it could take.

“In Cambodia, and across the world, the so-called war on drugs has failed,” said Nicholas Bequelin, AI Regional Director. “But there are clear alternatives based on scientific evidence that better protect human rights. The Cambodian authorities must consign the abusive policies of arbitrary detention and criminalization to history and embrace a compassionate and effective new era of drug policy,” he concluded.

About the Author

ASEAN Today is a leading ASEAN commentary site. Our HQ is in Singapore. We publish business, political and fintech commentaries daily, covering ASEAN and Greater China. Twitter: @Asean_Today Facebook: The Asean Today