A Cambodian government spokesperson defended the draft “State of Emergency” legislation on Thursday, calling the use of the soon-to-be-passed “historic” law as inevitable.
The newly-proposed law on declaring a national emergency would potentially give Cambodian government sweeping powers and unlimited access to martial power to enforce an emergency, while vastly controlling the citizenry’s online and offline activities.
The draft legislation would allow for the curtailment of civil rights and liberties, such as freedom of movement, expression, association, and assembly – all enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution – and widely criticized by rights groups.
Phay Siphan, a government spokesperson, said the law was intended as a good measure to direct Cambodia through any emergency, going on to extol its importance.
“The law is historically important and really important for Cambodians,” he said.
Phay Siphan said the declaration of a state of emergency was unavoidable at some point in the future and could happen in the next 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, though not commenting on whether the government would enforce the law during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Based on Article 22 of the Constitution, the draft law requires the King to declare the state of emergency, after reaching consensus with the Prime Minister and Presidents of the Senate and National Assembly, with the state of emergency being enforced through a Royal Decree.
He, however, didn’t answer whether anyone besides the King can declare the state of emergency.
“Don’t blame the King. He always loves his country,” Phay Siphan said.
Normally, in the absence of the King, Senate President Say Chhum is the acting head of state, with the power to draft Royal Decrees. But, the law does not explicitly state if in the extreme circumstance of a state of emergency, if the Senate president wields the same authority.
King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath departed for Beijing Wednesday morning, leaving Say Chhum as the designated head of state, enabling him to sign the legislation as law after it was passed by parliament.
The draft “state of emergency” law has received strong criticism from civil society members, human rights defenders, and politicians for the wide-ranging powers it gives to the government with nearly no serious accountability.
While Amnesty International said in a statement the law would obliterate human rights in the country, Human Rights Watch called it a “recipe for dictatorship.”
“These unprecedented powers are wildly disproportionate and threaten to permanently undercut the human rights of everyone in Cambodia,” said Nicholas Bequelin, regional director for Amnesty International, in the statement.
The law enables declaring of a state of emergency in the case of war, foreign invasion, health crises like pandemics, but also the vaguely-defined scenario of “severe chaos to national security and social order.”
Violations of the draft law could result in imprisonment for up to 10 years, and, in some cases, result in fines totaling one billion riels, or around $250,000.
“The Cambodian government should withdraw its draft state of emergency law, which would empower Prime Minister Hun Sen to override fundamental human rights protections,” said Human Rights Watch.
However, Phay Siphan was quick to brush aside these concerns. “When the country is under a state of emergency, there will be a military regime. The civil rights will be reduced and withdrawn temporarily,” he said, defending the contents of the law.
As of Thursday, Cambodia had reported 110 cases in total of the coronavirus in Cambodia and 34 recoveries, though questions linger over the efficacy of its monitoring and testing strategies.