Sophea Try, Cambodia
In Southeast Asia, many countries have experienced a significant rise of confirmed coronavirus cases over the past weeks. In an attempt to contain the spread of this global pandemic, Thailand and Indonesia have declared a state of emergency. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterre was also granted emergency powers to combat the pandemic. On 25 March 2020, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had also mentioned the possible scenario of using Article 22 of the Constitution requesting King Norodom Sihamoni to declare the state of emergency as well. Then on 31 March 2020, Cambodian government approved a draft law entitled “Law on National Administration in the State of Emergency”. The draft law needs to be adopted by the National Assembly and reviewed by the Senate before submitted to the King for promulgate.
Since the country was reunited in 1993, Cambodia does not have a separate law on the state of emergency. None of us have ever imagined that the law would be adapted during the fight against the invisible enemy, the Covid-19. Although the Prime Minister has ensured that the law could only be used when the situation is out of control, Cambodia is now ready to welcome this new law. Similar to the law of other countries, this draft law allows the declaration of a state of emergency when the nation faces danger such as war, foreign invasion, public health concerns caused by pandemics, serious chaos to national security and public order and severe calamity. The draft law prescribes broad, and unfettered powers to the government during a state of emergency that undermines a range of fundamental rights, including freedom of association and assembly, freedom of expression and information, freedom of movement, and right to property. It authorizes extraordinary powers to the government to impose confinement, quarantine, concriptiona and evacuation. The state can also manage, seize and handle properties when necessary to respond to the emergency. It allows the state to set prices on necessities and services, shut down public or private venues, conduct surveillance, prohibit dissemination or information that may cause fear or social chaos. The obstruction of the law’s implementation shall be punishable by a prison sentence of between one and five years and a fine of up to five million riel. For an obstruction that causes public chaos or harms national security is subject between five to ten years imprisonment.
While the implementation of emergency law will lead to some human rights restriction, it is also a concern that the government will take advantage of state of emergency to introduce unwarranted restrictions on human rights and other fundamental freedoms for other own-serving purposes that would be more difficult to pursue under normal circumstances. Many of the most grave and systematic human rights abuses occur during the public emergencies, when the state employs extraordinary powers to address threats to public order. In Cambodia, the draft law was prepared, reviewed, and then approved in a top-level meeting led by the Prime Minister within one week. Civil societies and other NGOs could not participate in the drafting process which brought the concern that the law would be used as a tool to surpass human rights in the country. This law will be used as a legitimate tool to sweep the powers, and permits human rights restrictions during the state of emergency since the government is empowered to use additional powers to tackle the threat to protect the people while curbing some individual rights in the interest of the wider public.
State of emergency can be declared when it presents a clear danger to the life of the nation that cannot be adequately addressed with the normal powers and resources available to a government. However, the current situation in Cambodia is under control. As of 6 April 2020, the country has reported 114 confirmed Covid cases with 53 people cured. For this moment, Cambodia is not ready to declare a state of emergency. Whether Cambodia will declare a state of emergency in the near future or not, the government shall ensure that all measures taken must respect the limits of human rights and fundamental freedoms provided and guaranteed under the relevant instruments of international and national laws. Certian rights such as right to life, probition of torture, freedom of thought, the right to recognize before the law, etc. cannot be derogable under any circumstances.
*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.