Draft legislation authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Cambodia would “empower Prime Minister Hun Sen to override fundamental human rights protections,” a rights group said Thursday, urging his government to withdraw the bill.
On March 31, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers approved the “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency,” which New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned in a statement would allow the government to “restrict all civil and political liberties and target human rights, democracy, and media groups.”
A vote on the bill by the country’s one-party National Assembly, essentially a rubber stamp parliament, is expected later this week or early next week.
Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, noted that Hun Sen has claimed the law is necessary to respond to a pandemic that only weeks ago he had dismissed concerns over, and suggested the prime minister is using the crisis as an excuse to give himself even greater control over the country.
“Even before the coronavirus, Hun Sen ran roughshod over human rights, so these sweeping, undefined, and unchecked powers should set off alarm bells among Cambodia’s friends and donors,” Adams said.
“Instead of passing laws to protect public health, the Cambodian government is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to assert absolute power over all aspects of civil, political, social, and economic life—all without any time limits or checks on abuses of power,” he added, referring to the disease caused by the virus.
In particular, HRW highlighted article 5 of the bill, which it said contains “overly broad and vague provisions that would violate fundamental rights” without explaining why they are needed to fight the spread of the virus.
The article includes language that would grant the government unlimited surveillance of telecommunications, control of media and social media, and what HRW called “catch-all unfettered powers,” referring to a clause through which authorities could put in place “other measures that are deemed appropriate for and necessary to responding to the state of emergency.”
Additionally, articles 1 and 4 would allow the government to declare a state of emergency even after the end of the coronavirus crisis, citing a need to “defend national security, public order, the lives and health of citizens as well as property and the environment,” while article 3 says that a declaration can last for an “unlimited period of time,” without specifying how a decision on its length would be reached.
The bill also would create a permanent opportunity for the government to declare martial law, HRW said, and fails to include any oversight for the powers it grants the state.
“The emergency law will allow Hun Sen, at long last, to run the country by fiat,” Adams said. “It will make his dictatorial rule legal and official.”
HRW warned that if the bill passes, it could be easily used against critics of the government, the oppositions, nongovernmental organizations, and the media—groups that have already been targeted in a longstanding crackdown by Hun Sen.
The group noted that United Nations human rights experts have cautioned states against emergency declarations based on the coronavirus “as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health … and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”
“From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hun Sen has denied or downplayed the risks posed to Cambodia by the coronavirus in Cambodia, but evidently he’s more than willing to join the bandwagon of autocratic leaders using the crisis to justify giving themselves vastly expanded powers,” Adams said.
“The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should remind Hun Sen that if he wants to suspend certain rights, he has to notify the UN Human Rights Committee. But pandemic or not, many rights cannot be suspended, and Cambodia will remain bound by its international legal commitments.”
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin on Thursday dismissed criticism of the draft law, but refused to comment on specific articles within it, saying the language is not official yet.
He said the government’s decision to pursue the bill is “not out of the ordinary” amidst the coronavirus outbreak and vowed that it would comply with international norms based on the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Before criticizing us, I would like Human Rights Watch to look into other countries’ laws in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak,” he told RFA.
“Do those laws restrict people’s freedom during the outbreak? For Cambodia, we are drafting the law for the public’s benefit and we are doing it in a way that will comply with international law.”
In the Philippines, where the country’s Congress declared a state of emergency to deal with the virus that has infected 2,633 and killed 107, rights groups have expressed concerns that new powers granted to President Rodrigo Duterte will make it dangerous for local governments to express dissent over how to respond to the crisis.
Cambodia’s National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long told RFA that members of parliament have yet to receive the draft law, but would review it “as soon as possible,” as quick action is needed to protect the public.
He stressed that even if the law is passed, only Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni can officially declare a state of emergency.
Activists weigh in
Meanwhile, activists around Cambodia expressed concerns over the bill, saying they believe it will restrict their freedom if enacted into law.
A student from the capital Phnom Penh named Chea Kunin told RFA that the law will impact freedom of expression, travel, and her work as an environmental activist who regularly monitors protected areas for illegal logging.
“We will endure difficulties expressing our views,” she said. “If we speak out and [the government] finds it offensive, we will be in trouble.”
Another activist named Suth Ban said the government can control the outbreak without placing the country under a state of emergency and called on lawmakers to consider the draft law carefully before passing it.
“When the draft law is approved, we will have problems speaking publicly,” he said.
HRW’s statement came a day after local NGOs also called on the government to ensure that authorities will only use the law to combat the coronavirus.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday, Ny Sokha—chief of the human rights department of the Cambodia-based rights group Adhoc—expressed concern over several points of the bill that he said might be used by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to control the country.
“We urge the government to use only those measures that are needed to fight the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “Nothing should be done that will harm democracy and human rights in the country.”
As of Thursday evening, Cambodia had recorded 110 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The government announced the first infection within the country’s borders on Jan. 27.
Analysts also expressed doubts over newly appointed Minister of Justice Koeut Rith, who replaced Ang Vong Vathana last week in a cabinet reshuffle by Hun Sen.
Analyst Kim Sok told RFA Koeut Rith might have been appointed to his position because he helped draft laws to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017 as part of a crackdown that sparked the country’s political crisis.
“To please Hun Sen. Koeut Rith will draft more law to opposition the dissents in Cambodia,” said the Finland-based analyst.
RFA couldn’t reach Koeut Rith for comment.
However, Ministry of Justice Chhin Malin told RFA that critics should not judge the new minister who was just appointed.
“This is destructive criticism, not constructive criticism. The minister has not started officially working yet but they have already judged him,” he said.
Political researcher Em Sovanara said the reshuffle may not change much in a situation like Cambodia's, where the judicial system is not independent.
“The three branches of the government, if they are separate, they will have checks and balances, but they are not at the moment.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.