Amid concerns over the implementation of the “State of Emergency” law, some senior officials said it is “purely to serve the public’s interest” while critics are worried over the lack of sufficient consultation.
The “State of Emergency” was signed into law by Acting Head of State Say Chhum on Wednesday after the Constitutional Council of Cambodia, Senate and National Assembly unanimously approved it last month.
The law, which comes amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, consists of five chapters and 12 articles and is based on Article 22 new of the constitution.
The draft law, fast-tracked for approval by skipping the Council of Minister’s deliberation, was criticised by Rhona Smith, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia.
She said the law grants extensive powers to the government for an initial period of three months, including restrictions and bans on the distribution of information and measures for monitoring and surveillance, by all means.
Other have criticised that the law lacks input from civil society and other relevant partners, raising concerns over enforcement if it is used.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin yesterday acknowledged that the law was fast-tracked for approval without consultation from outside the government due to limited time, but said the government had researched it well.
“When the COVID-19 outbreak became serious, we realised that this law is very necessary and we drafted it although time did not allow us to do any consultation,” he said. “In principle, if there is more input from relevant partners, it is good but it does not mean all their inputs are necessary. It depends on the time and circumstance where we should accept their recommendation.”
Mr Malin said the ministry had been researching on having such a law for many years even before the global pandemic.
“Although this law was drafted in a short time, we have researched and collected input for many years, not just over the past days,” he said.
However, Mr Malin said although the State of Emergency law had already passed, the government still welcomes the opinion of civil society and the public.
“It does not mean, we cannot amend the law. They can continue to provide their input,” he said. “But their previous input was not consistant with the content or purpose of the law and that is why we did not take those into account for consideration.”
Although senior government officials say the “State of Emergency” law is aimed at managing the country if COVID-19 spreads out of control, questions remain as to whether the law would be adopted to serve the public interest or is politically motivated.
CPP Lawmaker Chheang Vun said the law purely serves the public’s interest. He said the law took effect after the Acting Head of State signed it and the government can implement it anytime if the King declares a state of emergency with agreement from the Prime Minister and presidents of both legislative bodies.
“The law is aimed to serve people, protect their safety and ensure the rule of law,” he said. “If they are no such laws, how can we promote our country to be one that flows the rule of law?”
Former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath said he supports the Kingdom should have a “State of Emergency” law, but he some contents in the law are not clear and penalties are serious.
“I don’t think COVDID-19 situation in the Kingdom is serious enough to declare a state of emergency,” he said. “It is not necessary to declare an emergency because our country situation is not worse compared to other countries.”
Mr Chanrath hopes the government won’t take the “State of Emergency” to serve political interest, including in anti-government protests.
He said some previous laws were controversial and were highly criticized as being politically motivated.
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said on Thursday the “State of Emergency Law” is among other laws which were fast-tracked for approval, skipping public consultation before becoming legislation.
“The law is a double-edged sword, some laws actually defend the people but some others restrict people’s rights,” he said. “Those laws which are restrictive will invite reaction but if the laws receive more input, I believe there will be less criticism.”
Mr Sam Oeun, who is also a chief attorney at AMRIN Law and Consultants Group, said there were some criticisms to laws which were given fast approval and lacked legal input from relevant experts. He said these include the 2006 Law on Monogamy, Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code.
“Normally, when a draft is fast tracked for approval without consultation, we are concerned that it avoids democratic principles and lacks support from the people,” he said.
Mr Sam Oeun agreed that it is not necessary to declare a state of emergency due to COVID-19 as the disease is under control.
In the past, there were some controversial laws adopted by legislative bodies which are believed to have been used against specific targets rather than serving the public interest.
In 2006, the legislative bodies passed the “Law on Monogamy” which restricts Cambodian people to having only one wife and one husband. Observers at that time said it appeared to have been drafted with Prince Norodom Ranariddh in mind.
Following a complaint made by his wife Eng Marie who sued him for adultery, the royalist leader was charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with adultery over his affair with a classical dancer.
In 2013, the legislative bodies passed “The Law on the Denial of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea,” to punish individuals who refused to acknowledge or deny atrocities were committed during the Khmer Rouge era.
The law was adopted following a comment made by then CNRP vice president Kem Sokha who accused Vietnam of inventing the torture and jailing of thousands of Cambodians at the former Khmer Rouge’s S-21 Prison, now known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
However, no one was reportedly convicted after the law was adopted.
In 2017, the National Assembly also passed proposed revisions to the Law on Political Parties, which bars convicts from political leadership. At that time CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the law aimed to “kill Sam Rainsy’s political career” after he was convicted on various charges.
Mr Rainsy resigned as president of former CNRP after the amendment was proposed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and before it became law.
Mr Vun, who is also chairman of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation, Information and Media Commission, said on Thursday that concerns over Cambodia’s laws are unreasonable and baseless.
“Concern from critics is not new, it has not just happened and has been happening since 1993,” he said. “They are scared that the ruling party uses these laws to restrict their rights, but this is not so. If they have not done wrong, then how can they be punished?”
“People previously said [the government] was using the Law on Monogamy to pressure Prince Ranariddh,” Mr Vun noted. “The case was not related to the CPP or government because it was a complaint made by his wife. Now, they are already reunited. We use this law to treat social disease.”