A draft legislation authorising 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,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned on Thursday, urging the Cambodian 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 rights group 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.
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.”
Additionally, articles 1 and 4 would allow the government to declare a state of emergency even after the end of the coronavirus crisis 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.”
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.”
Ministry of Justice spokesman ChhinMalin 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 LengPeng 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. (Source: RFA)