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UN Experts Urge Caution on COVID-19 Response, Cambodia Hits Back

Workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) carry disinfectant to be sprayed at the Orussey market, after it was temporarily closed following a few vendors testing positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus, in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2021. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

The Cambodian government lashed out at the United Nations' criticism that its approach to mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus was breaching people’s right to privacy.

The Permanent Mission of Cambodia to the United Nations in Geneva shot back at a statement released by four United Nations special rapporteurs on Monday, who urged the Southeast Asian country to review its approach to COVID-19.

The statement refers to the Health Ministry’s decision to release the photos and personal information of people likely linked to a COVID-19 cluster from November 2020. While the government agreed to remove people’s photographs, the press statement retained their personal details.

“The naming and shaming in public of those who have contracted the virus can lead to discrimination and stigma. These actions are a deplorable breach of privacy,” the experts said.

“This may also deter people from having tests should they have symptoms of COVID-19 or if they suspect they are at risk of infection having been in close proximity with someone who has tested positive for the virus.”

The special rapporteurs, which includes Rhona Smith, the special rapporteur for human rights to Cambodia, also expressed “serious concern” over a series of harsh new legal and administrative measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, referring to the Law on Preventive Measures Against the Spread of COVID-19 and other Contagious Diseases.

The law came into effect on March 11 and was a response to the current cluster of COVID-19 cases, which has seen the country caseload balloon. The law includes harsh punishments such as a 20-year prison term and fines of up to 20 million riels, around $5,000, for those convicted of violations.

Cambodian authorities enforce the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on its citizens in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 8, 2021. (Kann Vicheika/VOA Khmer)
Cambodian authorities enforce the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on its citizens in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 8, 2021. (Kann Vicheika/VOA Khmer)

The law grants the government power to ban, restrict any gathering or demonstration. According to experts, at least four people have reportedly been arrested since the law came into effect and several others sent to quarantine for violating restrictions on movements.

“We are concerned that the administrative and penal measures, including excessive prison sentences and fines provided in the law, appear to be disproportionate and unwarranted. All measures taken to fight the pandemic, including possible punishments, should be necessary and proportionate and not be used excessively,” the statement reads.

Cambodia’s U.N. mission in response released a statement on Tuesday saying its response to the pandemic adhered to the “principles of legality, necessity and proportionality.”

“The Special Rapporteurs have to recognize the priority and play a responsible role in a manner that complements on the ground rather than detracts from the operation of lifesaving and suppression of community transmission,” the mission said in its statement.

Phnom Penh authorities decided to extend a night curfew that restricts non-essential movement around the city between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Cambodian authorities recently arrested three people, one person in Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham and Kampong Speu, for allegedly commenting on the use of Chinese vaccines in Cambodia.

Soeng Senkaruna, a spokesperson for Cambodian human rights group ADHOC, said the U.N. experts have evaluated their analysis based on human rights principles and not the practical situation in Cambodia. He said the U.N. statement was meant to assist Cambodia and to improve the situation.

“The U.N. experts’ criticism is intended for the government to take care of respecting citizens’ rights,” he said. “They criticize now because it is the right time since they are afraid of the government's implementation, which is violating people's rights.”