A group of more than five dozen civil society organizations (CSOs) and communities called Wednesday for Cambodia’s government to “immediately undertake consultation and amend” a newly enacted law authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus, citing a threat to human rights.
In a joint statement, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and 65 other signatories, said that without urgent and substantial amendment, the Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency grants the government powers to “restrict the fundamental freedoms of the Cambodian people without limit.”
“The State of Emergency Law was impulsively drafted without adequate consultation to protect and promote human rights,” the statement said.
“We call on the [government] to undertake immediate and meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and substantially amend the State of Emergency Law to ensure its compliance with Cambodia’s human rights obligations.”
The law was unanimously approved by Cambodia’s one-party legislature and signed into effect late last month, despite warnings from rights groups and a United Nations expert that it could be used to unnecessarily increase already heavy restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
“A declaration of a state of public emergency is not a free-for-all on human rights,” the statement said.
“[In its current form] the law provides the [government] with extensive powers to implement measures restricting human rights with few limitations in place to ensure they are enforced in compliance with the law.”
In particular, the groups called for an amendment to Article 5 of the law, which they said “prescribes vague, sweeping and unfettered powers to the government to implement measures during states of emergency,” including restrictions on movement, free speech, and business activities, closing public and private spaces, and surveilling communication, as well as monitoring and controlling social media.
They urged the government to revisit Articles 7, 8, and 9, which they said exacerbate the potential that the law be used to target human rights defenders, civil society, the media, as well as members of the public, because of vaguely worded criminal offenses that mandate severe penalties for not complying with emergency measures for both individuals and organizations.
The groups also highlighted Articles 3 and 6, which they said illegitimately transfer oversight power for terminating a state of emergency from lawmakers to the Prime Minister and fail to provide adequate accountability over how the law is implemented, respectively.
“While we recognize the prioritization of protecting the right to health during the COVID-19 crisis, this must be balanced with respect for all human rights,” the joint statement said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We call on the government to undertake inclusive and legitimate consultation with stakeholders with a vision to amend the law. These amendments must include limitations on the exercise of power by the [government] to ensure the law is not susceptible to abuse and to bring the law into compliance with Cambodia’s human rights obligations.”
Responding to Wednesday’s joint statement, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin suggested to RFA’s Khmer Service that the groups “don’t understand the context of the law.”
“Do they not understand or are they pretending not to understand?” he questioned.
“The law doesn’t give extreme power to the government without limitations—there are checks and balances mechanisms. If they don’t understand, they should ask questions or listen to our explanation.”
The enactment of the Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency comes amidst a years-long crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen that has targeted voices of dissent in the political opposition, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the independent media.
The crackdown led to a Supreme Court ban on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017 over an alleged plot to topple the government and paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Meanwhile, authorities have been using the coronavirus outbreak to legitimize what have been characterized by rights groups as “arbitrary arrests” of opposition supporters and government critics, with at least 40 people detained for spreading “fake news” and other offenses since the start of the pandemic.
At least 16 CNRP members who have spoken out against the government have also been the victims of a spate of brutal attacks since by masked assailants since mid-2019, and on Wednesday the Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition (CHRAC) of NGOs and CSOs campaigning for rights and democracy in the country expressed “grave concerns” about the latest targeting activist Eang Maryna two days earlier.
Eang Maryna said a male suspect wearing a helmet with a face mask to conceal his identity beat her with a rock, leaving her unconscious with a severe head wound, after she left her home on Monday to buy food in what she described as a normally quiet neighborhood in the capital Phnom Penh.
The activist had earlier posted a video to her Facebook page in which she criticized Hun Sen for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including pushing through the Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency. The video elicited comments from police and members of the military who threatened to harm her and arrest her.
Threat to freedom of expression
In its statement, CHRAC called the attack on Eang Maryna a “threat to the freedom of expression” in Cambodia and called on authorities to bring her justice.
“The victim was a prominent Facebook activist, an outspoken critic of the ruling government, and advocate of positive social change,” the group said.
“To achieve justice for the victim and avoid impunity for the perpetrator, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition (CHRAC) strongly condemns this attack and calls on Cambodian authorities and government to investigate the matter and do its utmost to ensure the perpetrator is brought to justice.”
In August, Sam Rainsy, the acting president of the CNRP, said he would return home on Nov. 9 to lead a restoration of democracy in the country through peaceful protests, but was blocked from doing so and forced to return to Paris, where he has lived since 2015 to avoid a string of charges and convictions he says are politically motivated.
Since the announcement, CNRP activists and supporters have been targeted in the attacks that opposition officials said amount to a campaign orchestrated by the CPP to sow fear within the community. Police have yet to arrest any suspects in the cases, although National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun has said investigations are ongoing.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.