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UN concerns ‘unfounded’

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Rhona Smith (left), special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, raised concerns about the new state of emergency law. Hong Menea

UN concerns ‘unfounded’

The government on Wednesday rebuffed concerns raised by senior UN human rights officials that the state of emergency law, which is being reviewed by the Senate and likely to be approved this week, could restrict the people’s freedom.

Consisting of five chapters and 12 articles, the draft law sets out formalities, procedures and terms to declare a state of emergency if the country runs into danger and stipulates a maximum 10-year imprisonment for anyone caught breaking it or hindering its enforcement.

Article 5 stipulates that certain measures would be taken in a state of emergency including restrictions on the people’s rights, freedom of movement, gatherings, jobs and occupations.

It allows the state to impose a lockdown, quarantine, conscription and evacuation. The state can also manage, seize and handle properties when necessary to respond to an emergency.

A copy of the draft law seen by The Post on Sunday said a state of emergency may not exceed three months, though it can be prolonged under the same conditions as when it is declared.

In a four-page communication to the Cambodian government seen by The Post on Wednesday, four senior UN rights officials expressed concerns over the bill.

Dated April 9, the letter was jointly written by Rhona Smith, special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia; Leigh Toomey, vice-chair of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Dainius Puras, special rapporteur on the rights to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and Fionnuala Ni Aolain, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

While providing for strong protection of the rights to health amid the Covid-19 pandemic, they said the law will also undermine fundamental human rights if passed in its entirety.

“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 as provided in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Cambodia on May 26, 1992,” the letter said.

It continued that the bill is not sufficiently focused on measures needed to address legitimate public health needs, while its vague contents threaten to violate Cambodia’s international human rights obligations.

“Further concern is in relation to the broadly-worded language concerning power and penalty, including prison terms of up to 10 years for those found in violation of the law,” it said.

The UN officials also singled out Article 5, which allows the government to set prices on necessities and services, shut down public or private venues, conduct surveillance and gather information from all telecommunication mediums by all means.

It also prohibits dissemination or publication of information that may cause social chaos or harm to national security, fears or confusion over a state of emergency.

They said vaguely worded clauses in the draft law could be subject to misinterpretation or misapplication.

“While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of the information received, we express our deep concern with the far-reaching scope of the draft law and its impact on the enjoyment of civil and political rights.

“We are also concerned with the lack of an adequate oversight mechanism to prevent, safeguard, and provide remedy in case there is an abuse of authority, as the government is only obliged to report about the measures taken to the National Assembly and Senate.

“We encourage review and reconsideration of the scope of protected rights to be restricted by any emergency declaration, and clearly stated oversight of the authorities designed to exercise such restrictions.

“In particular, we encourage explicitly mandated judicial oversight for any restriction on fundamental rights during a state of emergency,” they said.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan shrugged off the concerns, saying the law is in line with the Constitution.

“The law is a necessary complement to what is stated in the Constitution. It’s the right and sovereignty of Cambodia. No NGOs, be it local or international, can interfere in Cambodia’s internal affairs and its enforcement of the Constitution.

“They should not be overly concerned because even the US and the UK also have this law. Currently, four or five countries are enforcing this kind of law already, but Cambodia doesn’t have one yet. So Cambodia wants a similar rule of law and needs it,” he stressed.

Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) spokesperson Chin Malin echoed Siphan. He said the UN officials should not be criticising the Kingdom for adopting the law when their home countries are also enforcing it.

The law, which he said is long overdue, follows international human rights standards and practices in other nations.

“The ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provide for restrictions on citizens’ rights and freedom in a state of emergency. But the restrictions must be determined by law for the sake of public and common interests,” he said.

He said the government-proposed measures and implementation in a state of emergency are not arbitrary and will be reviewed and monitored by the National Assembly and Senate.

“If the National Assembly and Senate see that the measures are inappropriate and unnecessary, they will declare a halt to the state of emergency. So, the law doesn’t give absolute power to the government.

“This is a parliamentary democracy,” he said, adding officials found breaking the law will also be held accountable.

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