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Cambodia’s Controversial State of Emergency Draft Signed into Law

Left to right: Senate President Say Chhum, President of National Assembly Heng Samrin, and Prime Minister Hun Sen commemorate Cambodia's National Independence Day, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 9, 2019. (Hul Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)

Acting head of state Say Chhum promulgated the controversial state of emergency legislation into law on Wednesday, despite severe concerns over its ability to abuse citizens’ human rights and freedoms.

The Royal Decree dated April 29 announced the promulgation which was signed by Say Chhum because King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath are on a medical visit to China.

The draft legislation has been criticized by domestic and international rights groups for giving the government sweeping powers to curtail civil rights and liberties, such as freedom of movement, expression, association, and assembly – all enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution.

The law was drafted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but provides powers to the government in other situations as well, such as war, armed conflict, and the vaguely worded occurrence of a national security threat.

The new law is based on Article 22 of the Constitution which allows the King to declare a state of emergency after consultations with the prime minister and presidents of the Senate and National Assembly.

Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, said in a statement on April 17 that “the law endangers human rights” including the right to privacy, free speech, and criminalized peaceful assembly.

The law should be more focused on addressing public health needs while also protecting fundamental freedoms, added Rhona Smith.

The government did not attempt to have any kind of public consultation with international stakeholders, civil society groups, and NGOs.

On April 17, Justice Minister Koeut Rith defended the draft, calling the law “very necessary and needed” for the country.

“The law is not enacted to restrict people’s rights and freedom, but the law is enacted to help the nation in the state of emergency,” he said.

Koeut Rith called anyone who criticized the law “not a friend of Cambodia,” while still touting his intent to protect rights, including freedom of expression.