State of Emergency Bill Signed into Law

Acting Head of State Say Chhum Wednesday (April 29) signed into law the Law on the Management of the Nation during a State of Emergency as King Norodom Sihamoni has been in Beijing for a routine medical checkup. (Photo: AFP)
  • Gerald Flynn
  • April 30, 2020 2:49 AM

Acting Head of State Say Chhum Wednesday (April 29) signed into law the Law on the Management of the Nation during a State of Emergency, which grants the government sweeping powers should a state of emergency be declared and has raised concerns both nationally and internationally.

PHNOM PENH-- Acting Head of State Say Chhum Wednesday (April 29) signed into law the Law on the Management of the Nation during a State of Emergency. Given King Norodom Sihamoni is currently out of the country, it fell to President of the Senate Say Chhum as acting head of state to transform the draft law into binding legislation.

The Law on the Management of the Nation during a State of Emergency, which Prime Minister Hun Sen has been vocal about his enthusiasm for rushing through, grants the government the power to restrict people’s movement and association, as well as to monitor and gather information from all telecommunications.

It has been established in response to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic that, as of Thursday (April 30), has infected 3.2 million people worldwide and killed more than 227,000.  

However, Hun Sen has publicly rejected the idea of declaring a state of emergency at present, citing the detection of just 122 cases of COVID-19 throughout the nation since January 2020 as failing to meet the criteria of the new law. 

Despite this, on March 30 Hun Sen suggested that the draft law be passed quickly, stressing he would only declare a state of emergency if his measures to contain COVID-19 were ineffective. 

The progress of the bill has been remarkably swift, having been drafted on March 31, then going on to pass the National Assembly on April 10 and the Senate on April 17 without amendment. The final set of checks and balances applied by the Cambodian legislature—the Constitutional Council—voted unanimously to approve the law as constitutional. 

The draft law had raised a great deal of concern both nationally and internationally. 

Ny Sokha, director of the Cambodian human-rights organization Adhoc, said that such a law should focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19 rather than impinging upon Cambodians’ rights.

“If we want to have [a] proper law, we can wait until after all stakeholders have no more arguments [or] political conflicts to bring their ideas to create a better law,” he said in interview on April 2. “For now, the law needs to focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19.” 

International observers also called for the law to address the management of an emergency rather than reducing civil liberties, with several international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) appealing for the law be rewritten.

Amnesty International on April 2 released a statement asking the Cambodian government to withdraw or substantially redraft what it called the “egregious” state of emergency law.

“Any emergency measures responding to COVID-19 or other emergencies must be proportionate, strictly necessary, and have the minimal possible impact on human rights,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director. “Instead of targeting critics and enacting this draconian law, the Cambodian government should be focusing on protecting the right to health through the prevention and treatment of COVID-19.” 

On April 2, Human Rights Watch put out a statement decrying the law in its earliest draft stage. “It’s truly frightening that during a national crisis, the Cambodian government seems more interested in silencing online critics than undertaking a massive COVID-19 public information campaign,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia. 

On April 9, Rhona Smith, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, also voiced concerns about the impact the law would have on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and movement for Cambodians.

“The government’s justifications to adopt the law were centered on the response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the draft law does not appear to be sufficiently focused on measures necessary to address legitimate public health needs,” she wrote in a letter. 

In response to these comments, Chin Malin, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said on April 13 that the draft law did not appear to be a violation of human rights or a power-gathering tool as some people have said. He pointed out that, in 1992, Cambodia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that a country must provide equal and inalienable rights to its citizens.  

It remains to be seen whether the Cambodian government will declare a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic which, while not claiming any lives in Cambodia, has upturned the economy and left hundreds of thousands out of work and unable to earn an income.  

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