Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

UN human rights expert shares concerns on COVID-19 law, receives no answer from government

Motorists show official exemption letters to Phnom Penh police during curfew enforcement from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., April 1, 2021. Panha Chhorpoan
Motorists show official exemption letters to Phnom Penh police during curfew enforcement from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., April 1, 2021. Panha Chhorpoan

The outgoing UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights has expressed concerns a sweeping law intended to halt the spread of Covid-19 could be used to restrict civil rights in Cambodia.

In a letter to the Cambodian government made public this past weekend, Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith cited concerns with provisions in the new law that provide the government with the power to “restrict or prohibit travel, meetings and gatherings,” and “restrict certain business operations or professional activities”.

The special rapporteurs also took note with the state’s new authority to block certain areas or places as well as what the rights observers described as disproportionate punishments for individuals who fail to comply with the health administrative measures. Those penalties can include prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years. 

“The imposition of public health and other measures during a health emergency should be aimed at the overall protection of public health, as opposed to simply limiting spread,” the letter noted. “A narrower aim risks ignoring the direct and indirect health impacts of restrictive measures, particularly as they relate to marginalised and vulnerable groups.”

The letter from Smith, who will complete a five-year mandate later this month and will be replaced in her role by rights expert Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand, stated the law could be in violation of international rights agreements, specifically covenants on civil, political and economic rights. Smith also specifically raised issues with the rapid passage of the legislation without consultation with the public.

Lawmakers brought forward a draft of the law February 28, addressing COVID-19 but also infectious diseases more generally. By March 11, the day Cambodia officially recorded its first death from COVID-19, the bill had passed through the necessary legislative processes to become law.

Since then, it has faced criticism of being overly broad and vague, with opponents noting the law as written could be easily abused and fails to provide any independent oversight or safeguards for rights. Most recently, by order of the Ministry of Health, officials in Phnom Penh and Kampong Speu province enacted a two-week, overnight curfew to stop rising infection counts.

According to the curfew order signed by Phnom Penh Governor Khuong Sreng on April 1, businesses including restaurants, cafes and bars are not permitted to have customers on-site during restricted hours, which run from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Businesses are, however, allowed to continue delivery services.

The two-week curfew is likely to have a strong effect on small business owners and others who work at night, particularly street food vendors.

Phnom Penh Police spokesman San Sok Seiha said that during the first three nights of the curfew, from April 2-4, authorities confiscated 138 motorbikes and 27 other vehicles. People who break curfew, may be subject to a mandatory 14-day home quarantine at their houses. Sok Seiha did not elaborate on details.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said the issues raised by the UN experts are only theoretical, stating the COVID-19 law is necessary as an urgent measure to preserve the public welfare in light of a spreading viral outbreak. 

“This law is to prevent [harm to] people’s life, welfare, and [for] ensuring public order,” Mr. Malin said.

“It isn’t restricted on rights individually, and for common interests,” he said. 

Malin said the law on COVID-19 meets the weight of the situation in the country and is compliant with both the Cambodian constitution and international covenants such as those listed by Smith. 

“Usually, that law has some restrictions,” he said, referring to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which he said allows for restrictions to serve the interest of the public.

Mr. Malin admitted that the law on COVID-19 had not had a wide public consultation, but again cited the “urgent situation in responding to people who are facing infection and death from COVID-19.”

But Smith and the other signatories of the human rights letter raised issues that contested the law’s compliance with international convents. The signatories noted that, while the law currently addresses COVID-19, its conditions could apply beyond the pandemic to other diseases as determined by the Ministry of Health. They also said its conditions aren’t well-defined, have no limitation on the length of time of restrictive measures and apply punishments with no apparent connection to public health.

“We are equally concerned that the administrative and penal measures provided in the law appear to be grossly disproportionate,” read the statement. “Excessive prison sentences and fines are proposed for merely breaching health and administrative measures.”

“We urge the government to revisit the law, make it in line with international human rights standards that protect the rights and freedoms of Cambodian,” the statement continued, urging the government to take all necessary interim measures “to halt the alleged violations and prevent their re-occurrence.” 

So far, the Cambodian government has not answered the UN letter.

When reached by CamboJA for comment, Koy Kuong, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Ministry, didn’t say whether the government would respond, referring the question to the Justice Ministry.  

Kang Savang, monitoring and advocacy coordinator at COMFREL (Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia) expressed similar concerns as the UN Special Rapporteur.

“[The government] created the law without widely consulting [the public], so there is [also] not much interest in serving the people when they implement,” he said.

He also pointed to the political dimension of the law, adding that, with only the ruling CPP remaining in government, the COVID-19 law faced no debate in the National Assembly.

Meach Sovannara, a former senior official with the court-dissolved CNRP opposition, said the process of writing a law without transparency or input from all relevant stakeholders, especially civil society groups, had overlooked the broader effects of restrictive legislation on the lives of Cambodian citizens.

“This law is a rush [in which] the government does not consider economic decline or challenges to people’s livelihoods in these circumstances,” he said.  

Mr. Sovannara said that, in the absence of an opposition, the lawmaking process in the National Assembly had been done arbitrarily. The legislative body has been dominated by the sole party of the CPP since the opposition CNRP was forcibly dissolved in 2017. Still, Sovannara noted that in previous instances, even after making law, the CPP had cancelled or amended legislation which hadn’t been thoroughly considered. 

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health continues to identify new cases of COVID-19. The ministry announced Monday that it had detected 63 new cases of the viral disease, raising the total number related to the February 20 outbreak up to 2,222.

So far, 21 people have died from the disease. Cambodia has officially marked a total of 2,752 cases of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020.