Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Civil society groups call for draft Public Order Law to be scrapped

Three women wearing short clothing socialize on Phnom Penh's riverside on August 12. Panha Chhorpoan

Civil society groups on August 13 called on the government to immediately discard the draft Law on Public Order, saying that it will lead to a crackdown on fundamental freedoms in the country as it grants overbroad powers to the government, allowing it to undermine human rights.

A statement signed by 65 local and international civil society organizations including Adhoc, Amnesty International, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Licadho, called on the government to scrap the draft and uphold its obligations to international human rights law.

“The draft law contains an extensive array of provisions that effectively criminalize the legitimate everyday activities of many within the Kingdom of Cambodia, in violation of their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and other protected human rights,” the statement says. 

“If enacted, the draft law will become yet another piece of repressive legislation in a legal framework that severely undermines human rights,” read the joint statement.

Interior Ministry Secretary of State Ouk Kimlek, who has led the creation of the draft law, said August 13 that the ministry welcomes input from civil society groups, but that the legislation cannot be scrapped.

“It is their right to make requests, but local provincial authorities are supportive of the creation of a law on Public Order for proper management of the cultural traditions of the nation,” he said, adding that the law was sent to provincial, district and commune level authorities this week for review.

“We are welcoming input from civil organizations but we can’t drop it,” Kimlek said.

“Please inform those NGOs, it is just initial ideas, it is not full as the draft law,” he said, asking “What are those NGOs asserting? Which points restrict freedoms?”

Civil society groups said in their joint statement that as a whole, the 8-chapter, 48-article draft law undermines fundamental freedoms in Cambodia.

The draft law is extensive in scope and includes such an expanse of prohibited actions that it would be virtually impossible to uniformly enforce, in contrast with longstanding universal rule of law principles. Article 1 of the draft law states its purpose is to ensure public order management by maintaining order, aesthetic value, sanitation, cleanliness of the environment, quietness, social stability, preservation of national tradition, and the dignity of citizens.

“Many of these terms and categories are not defined, and are based on purported social objectives which are arbitrary, subjective and constantly changing,” it says.

“Ultimately, the draft law has the potential to severely restrict freedom of expression both online and offline,” it says, pointing to a list of actions that are prohibited under Article 37 such as “exhibiting or disseminating writing or picture or using cursing words on social media,” “showing arrogant behavior” and “disseminating or posting writing, signs or pictures that represent any threat.”

Penalties for breaking the draft Law on Public Order range from “warnings” and “administrative penalties,” to imprisonment for one to six days and fines of up to 500,000 riel ($120). 

Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, also called for the draft law to be thrown out, saying that it has affected the fundamental freedoms of citizens, especially women.

“It is affecting the rights of freedom of assembly at public places because this draft law hands power to local authorities, so there will be a crackdown and fines or penalties on people who have a gathering that breaks the law,” he said.

Sam Ath said he could think of many events that may have led the government to decide to draft the Public Order law. 

“I have seen in the past, there was the group of youth cycling [to support environmental preservation] and other people who have gathered to share their opinions on advocacy are always banned,” Sam Ath said.

“There is no law to ban activities such as cycling, so if the draft law on Public Order is approved, then they will be able to ban it based on the law.”

Chak Sopheap, executive director at CCHR said August 13 via email that the draft law is a severe violation of human rights and freedoms, including in Article 36, which bans women from wearing clothing that is “too short” or “too see-through”.

Article 36 says: “Wearing clothes which adversely affect the national tradition and dignity in public and which are stated below are prohibited. a) Men who wear trousers but no shirt in crowded places or who wear [underpants] showing any part of the genital area. b) Women who wear items that are too short or too see-[through], or which shows some part of the genital area.”

“This provision undermines personal autonomy and leaves the subjective terms up to the interpretation of individual law enforcement officers, thus opening the door to unequal enforcement,” Sopheap said.

“Moreover, in Cambodia in recent months, we have seen the policing of women’s bodies and clothing from the highest levels of government, belittling women’s rights to bodily autonomy and self-expression, and placing blame on women for the violence committed against them,” she said.

Sopheap added that some women have already been subjected to imprisonment for their choices in clothing this year, with one convicted in February for sharing images of herself on Facebook “affecting Cambodia’s customs, and especially its women,” according to a police statement.

Since details of the draft law’s restrictions on clothing were revealed earlier this month Cambodian women have taken to social media to protest by sharing photos of themselves in swimwear. 

Sopheap said that besides women’s freedoms, the law on public order would also affect the human rights of many people across the country, including economically disadvantaged members of society, those who work in the informal economy, individuals with mental illnesses and people exercising their fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

“We are gravely concerned about the provisions in the draft law that violate human rights protections enshrined in domestic and international law, and as a result of these violations the draft law must be immediately withdrawn by the RGC,” she said.

After hearing about details of the new draft law that would restrict womens’ rights, 23-year-old Sen Le said she does not support the new measures, especially the articles related to women’s clothing choices.

“I do not support the law because it has restricted the rights of women so that they do not have the freedom to wear whatever they want,” Le said.

“For me, they should not use the words ‘too short, too see-through’ because we do not know how to measure if the clothes we wear are too short.”

Another young woman who gave her name only as Davy, 19, said it was important for women to dress in a way that represents Khmer culture.

“Sometimes, if we wear clothes that are too sexy, it doesn’t look good because we are Khmer women and we have to promote our traditions and culture,” she said.

Kimlek, who is leading the draft law, emphasized that Article 36 was meant to regulate both men’s and women’s clothing in public places.

“Showing some part of the genital area refers to women who wear shirts showing the breasts, and for skirts that show genitals,” Kimlek said.

He added that men who wear only underwear or go shirtless would face the same consequences. 

Exceptions would be made for the tourism sector, arts, sports, or other areas that have prior permission from a competent authority, he added.

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