By Umakant Singh, Freelance Consultant of HACC
Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sok An called for anti-trafficking laws to be implemented in a way that did not affect HIV prevention efforts during the closing ceremony of the 3rd National AIDS Conference in Phnom Penh on 12 September 2008.
On 3 March 2008, the Cambodian government passed the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation to comply with US policies. The same month, a number of sex workers were arrested and brothels closed across the country.
The sex workers were sent to rehabilitation centres where they were held in communal cells without bathrooms or running water. They received little food and some reported being beaten or raped. Those living with HIV were reportedly denied antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).
Aside from the more obvious human rights issues involved in such cases, critics of the trafficking law argue that the criminalization of sex work has had a negative impact on the policy of 100% condom use, signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on 14 October 1999.
In response to the law, a UN theme group on Donor and Civil Society in Cambodia issued a statement on 5 May titled, ‘Protecting Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS Gains: The Public Health Effects of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s Trafficking Suppression Campaign and Law on the Suppression of Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation.’
Prepared in consultation with civil society groups and donors, the statement said “We support the Kingdom of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking efforts and zero tolerance for trafficking of vulnerable persons and sexual exploitation.”
“However, recent anti-trafficking efforts being implemented in Cambodia are having serious negative public health consequences and threaten Cambodia’s remarkable success in cutting HIV prevalence from 2% in 1998 to 0.9% in 2007.”
Many people, including Dr Tia Phalla of the National AIDS...