Legislation authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Cambodia risks violating the right to privacy, free speech, and peaceful assembly, a United Nations expert said Friday, as lawmakers gave their final approval of the bill.
“Emergency measures must be necessary and proportionate to the crisis they seek to address,” Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, said in a statement.
“The broadly worded language on the protection of national security and public order, ostensibly aimed at addressing COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus], can potentially be used to infringe on the right to privacy and unnecessarily restrict freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”
The “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency” was unanimously approved by Cambodia’s one-party National Assembly on April 10 and by the Senate within two hours of its introduction on Friday.
Under the bill—which will now be examined by the Constitutional Council before it is forwarded to King Norodom Sihamoni to be signed into law—Cambodia’s government can be granted sweeping powers for an initial period of three months, including restrictions and bans on the distribution of information, as well as “monitor[ing] and surveillance, by all means.”
Smith said Friday that offenses such as “obstruction” or “staging an obstacle” to government operations were open to interpretation and penalties of up to 10 years’ in prison and heavy fines were disproportionate.
“Penalties and fines should be commensurate to the seriousness of offence committed, with consideration given to the individual’s economic situation,” she said.
“This is particularly relevant for people already jobless and/or unable to generate income because of the emergency measures.”
Instead, Smith said, Cambodia should be introducing laws that can be used to address public health needs while also protecting fundamental freedoms.
Authorities should take steps to ensure that everyone has access to adequate health care and adopt special measures for people in particular situations of vulnerability, including those with underlying illnesses, disabilities, the elderly, detainees, the rural poor, indigenous peoples, and ethnic minorities, she said.
Smith warned that the new law’s penalties and criminal responsibilities could also be used to target civil society and human rights organizations, which she said “already operate within a highly restrictive environment” in Cambodia.
“A state of emergency should be guided by human rights principles and should not, in any circumstances, be an excuse to quash dissent or disproportionately and negatively impact any other group,” she said.
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cambodia remained steady at 122 on Friday.
‘Not necessary for public health’
Smith’s statement follows earlier ones by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which said the law contained vague clauses that would provide Prime Minister Hun Sen with a means to “run the country by fiat,” and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which said it would lead to “gross violations of the freedom to inform and be informed that could have serious consequences during the coronavirus crisis.”
On Monday, HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said the law gives Hun Sen “almost unlimited powers for an unlimited period of time.”
“This includes martial powers. It also allows the government to read all emails and listen to all phone calls, which is not necessary for public health,” he wrote in a commentary.
It also came days after Australia’s former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans wrote in an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald that the law “should be ringing alarm bells for anyone anywhere concerned with the erosion of human rights and democracy,” and called on his country’s government to sanction officials responsible for rights violations in Cambodia.
On Friday, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was banned by the Supreme Court in November 2017 for its alleged role in a plot to topple the government, issued a statement denouncing the law as lacking benefits for Cambodians and aimed at maintaining power for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The ban on the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
“The CNRP believes that the draft law approved by the one-party National Assembly produced by a fake election aims to protect Hun Sen’s power and his family members more than protecting the nation and the harmony of the people,” the opposition said in its statement.
“The CNRP, which represents half of the population, would like to request that King Norodom Sihamoni refrain from signing the draft law.”
U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal of California, also responded to the approval of the law, calling it “appalling” that after initially dismissing the seriousness of the coronavirus, Hun Sen “is now using the pandemic as cover to push through emergency legislation that only increases his authoritarian hold over the people of Cambodia.”
“This sweeping and draconian law only further empowers him to expand his consistent track record of human rights violations, all while claiming it is for the good of the country,” the U.S. lawmaker said.
Hun Sen and others in his government have waved off concerns about the bill, and on Friday, Senate spokesman Mam Bunneang told RFA’s Khmer Service that lawmakers “understand the necessity” for such legislation, which he vowed would “protect democratic principles.”
He also said that the law will not grant absolute power to the government “because the National Assembly and the Senate will provide checks and balances.”
“The rest of the world is using state of emergency laws, so we also need one to ensure the country doesn’t fall into disaster,” he said.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin told RFA that international human rights principles allow for some limitations on people’s freedom during a state of emergency for the sake of public health and said Cambodia’s draft law complies with those principles.
“The CNRP’s criticism runs contrary to the content of the draft law,” he said.
The approval of the law comes a day after authorities in Banteay Meanchey province arrested the former CNRP chief of Svay Rieng province, Nhem Van, and sent him to the capital Phnom Penh for detention, making him the ninth member of the opposition taken into custody since the coronavirus outbreak was first confirmed in Cambodia in January.
His wife, Pao Sarann, told RFA that her husband had been on the run in Banteay Meanchey for the previous 10 days after authorities increased their surveillance of him. He had also gone into hiding in 2019 after police surrounded his home and only returned after Hun Sen ordered authorities to stop targeting the CNRP.
National Police Commissioner Chhay Kimkoeun police arrested Nhem Van based on a court order and that he was charged with “incitement to commit a felony.”
Soeung Senkarona, spokesman for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, described the arrest as politically motivated and warned that such moves will draw condemnation from the international community.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday also denied bail to seven CNRP activists recently arrested on treason charges.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.