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Senate Approves Controversial ‘State of Emergency’ Law, Heads to Constitutional Council

Senate on Friday unanimously voted to pass the draft “state of emergency” legislation, a law widely criticized for giving the government widespread powers to curtail fundamental freedoms and rights. (Courtesy photo of Senate Facebook Page)

The one-party controlled Senate unanimously voted on Friday to pass the draft “state of emergency” legislation, a law widely criticized for giving the government widespread powers to curtail fundamental freedoms and rights.

The draft legislation, which passed the Senate – a deliberative body – without any amendments, would allow for the curbing of fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, association, and assembly – all enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution – and has been widely criticized by rights groups.

Senate spokesperson and Senator Mam Bunneang said the draft was passed by 54 of the 62 senators in the upper house, without any changes. Eight senators were absent.

He added that critics were looking at the law from a political viewpoint, rather than a national security perspective.

“They think about politics too much. If we think about the legality, the law is very democratic,” he said.

The law now heads to the Constitutional Council after which it will be signed into law, likely by acting Head of State and Senate President Say Chhum, in the absence of King Norodom Sihamoni.

During the Senate, newly-appointed 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.

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

“The broadly worded language on the protection of national security and public order, ostensibly aimed at addressing COVID-19, can potentially be used to infringe on the right to privacy and unnecessarily restrict freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” read the statement.

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

The hastily-drafted legislation is based on Article 22 of the Constitution that enables the King to declare a state of emergency, after reaching consensus with the Prime Minister and Presidents of the Senate and National Assembly.

The draft law allows for a “state of emergency” to be declared in multiple scenarios, ranging from national security situations such as war or foreign invasion to public health concerns such as pandemics and severe calamity. It additionally allows for this law to be used during the vaguely-worded scenario of “severe chaos to national security and social order.”

The draft has not been placed for any kind of public consultation with international stakeholders, civil society groups and NGOs.