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UN Rapporteurs Raise ‘Deep Concerns’ over Draft State of Emergency Law

FILE PHOTO - U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith attends a press conference at her office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, May 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

The four rapporteurs, including Rhona Smith, released the four-page document highlighting their concerns with the draft legislation and pointing out that the draft’s intent of protecting the health of citizens was not the focus.

Four United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Tuesday raised “deep concern” over a draft of the “state of emergency” law, which is expected to be passed by the ruling party-dominated Senate this week.

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

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 has been widely criticized by rights groups.

The four rapporteurs, including Rhona Smith, special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, released the four-page document highlighting their concerns with the draft legislation and pointing out that the draft’s intent of protecting the health of citizens was not the focus.

“While the Government’s justifications to adopt the law were centered on the response to the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, the draft law does not appear to be sufficiently focused on measures necessary to address legitimate public health needs,” the report reads.

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 rapporteurs said the draft was worded vaguely and threatened to violate Cambodia’s rights violations.

“Nevertheless, we are concerned that, if adopted as is, the law may restrict the right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and right to movement,” they said.

In return, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee issued a statement on Monday, hitting back at the rapporteurs’ critiques of the draft legislation, by choosing to call them as being part of “opposition groups.”

The committee, headed by Keo Remy, insisted that the draft law was “neither, by nature, a human rights violation nor a power gathering tool as alleged by a handful of opposition groups, but it is a valuable legal tool for the defense of the right to life, the right to peace, social stability and development.”

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the draft law would give Hun Sen “almost unlimited powers for an unlimited period of time and martial powers.”

“It also allows the government to read all emails and listen to all phone calls, which is not necessary for public health,” said Brad Adams.

The UN experts also asked the Cambodian government to provide additional information on measures taken to ensure the compliance of the draft law with Cambodia’s obligations under international human rights law and standards.

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

Senate spokesperson Mam Bunneang said on Wednesday the Commission on Legislation and Justice had already reviewed the draft and would be assessed by the Permanent Committee before being presented on the floor of the Upper House.

“It is a very important law for our whole nation,” he said, adding that it will likely pass on Friday.

Thereafter, the law 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.