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Poser over whether State of Emergency is needed to stem virus spread

Ben Sokhean / Khmer Times Share:
Police checking motorists for permits to leave Phnom Penh during a lockdown imposed to control the pandemic during the Khmer New Year. KT/Tep Sony

Seven months ago, when Acting Head of State Say Chhum signed the draft law on State of Emergency into legislation after it was unanimously approved by legislative bodies and the Constitutional Council of Cambodia, the possibility of its implementation remains a sensitive question.

During the outbreak following the “November 3 incident” and the visit of the Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó to the Kingdom, Prime Minister Hun Sen had hinted that he could request King Norodom Sihamoni to sign a royal decree to put some parts of the country into a State of Emergency, but he did not wish to do so.

However, due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases and especially the ongoing outbreak of the first-ever community transmission, questions are being raised about the possibility of implementing the law. Government officials and academics have expressed mixed views about the status of  the State of Emergency law in Cambodia.

Academics have said that although the possibility of a State of Emergency in the Kingdom is “low”, the implementation of the law is possible if the people ignore the government’s measures, especially the Ministry of Health’s to contain community transmission of the virus.

Kin Phea, director-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, on Tuesday said that a State of Emergency is only “likely” if people defy the government’s instructions to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 in the community.

“I think the possibility of declaring a State of Emergency is low because the measures taken by the government to respond to the outbreak are effective. But, it depends on the public’s cooperation and attitude toward COVID-19,” he said. “If the people are not cooperative and ignore the government’s instructions, declaring a State of Emergency is likely,” Phea added.

He said it would be good for the government and the people themselves if they work together to fight against the pandemic.

“The act of declaring a State of Emergency is not a good idea, it will damage the national economy and livelihoods of the poor,” he said.

The law consists of five chapters and 12 Articles and is based on Article 22 new of the constitution.

The government would have the right to impose several measures, including the prohibition or restriction of freedom of movement, right to freedom of gathering of people and work or occupation.

Article 5 of the State of Emergency stipulates the government may put in place mechanisms or delegate relevant authorities to use military forces in guaranteeing the enforcement of the law.

“In cases of war or any other circumstances in which national security is seriously jeopardised, management of the nation by the Royal Government may be implemented by a martial regime,” the Article states.

Human Rights Adhoc senior investigator Soeng Sen Karuna yesterday urged the government to use other means to the fullest extent possible to control community outbreaks rather than enforce the State of Emergency.

“I understand that placing or not placing a country in a State of Emergency depends on the control of COVID-19 in the current situation,” Sen Karuna said. “If there is still clear and effective control, I think we should not use this law. If the situation worsens, I believe the government will use this to deprive some rights of the people,” Sen Karuna said.

“We do not want to see the law used in a restrictive sense, but usually when the law comes into force, it is justified in the country. We urge you [the government] to carefully consider whether to implement this law,” he added.

Sen Karuna said when the law was still a draft, and not adopted by legislative bodies, civil society organisations had argued about some Articles in it, saying it restricted the people’s rights. However, it still became law.

“Armed forces can be used to control a country if any person or individual does not abide by this law, they may face other measures,” he added. “The law seems to empower the government, a concern that undermines the exercise of citizens’ rights.”

Rhona Smith, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, previously warned that the government’s State of Emergency law in response to the pandemic risked violating the right to privacy, silencing free speech and criminalising peaceful assembly.

However, Chin Malin, Justice Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday that only the King can declare a State of Emergency, but was optimistic the pandemic is under control so far.

“Usually we have to use this law when the situation is out of control, which would be a worst case scenario when people do not follow instructions,” he said. “But if the situation in a country is still under control and people follow measures, then there is no need to use it.”

However, Malin said, based on his observation, the situation is under control to prevent a mass outbreak of COVID-19.

“The people seem to be cooperating to implement the administrative measures put out by the government,” he added.

Malin said only the Prime Minister, President of the Senate and President of the National Assembly have the right to request King Norodom Sihamoni to declare a State of Emergency.

“If the three dignitaries understand that the [virus] situation is getting worse or out of control and if it is necessary to put the country under a State of Emergency, then they will request His Majesty  the King before the law can be enforced,” he said.

Article 4 of the law says the declaration of a State of Emergency is announced when the country faces danger during some conditions, including “the emergent danger of public health caused by the pandemic disease”.

Prime Minister Hun Sen last month said he was considering whether or not to declare a lockdown of Phnom Penh or some parts of the country.

“I can request to His Majesty the King to sign an order to put some parts of the country, Phnom Penh or the whole country into a State of Emergency. But I don’t want to do so as it will affect the freedom of many people,” he said.

National Assembly secretary-general Leng Peng Long told Khmer Times on Tuesday that he agrees with Malin that the first community outbreak is not “serious enough” to request the King to put the country in a State of Emergency.

However, he said the government is paying high attention to the current COVID-19 community outbreak. He said it needs to assess thoroughly before proposing to place the country in a State of Emergency.

He said dozens of lawmakers and National Assembly officials have gone into quarantine after coming into direct and indirect contact with the “November 28 community incident”.

“I do not think the current situation is serious enough to put the country in a State of Emergency,” Peng Long said. “However, we are in a cautious phase, especially with people who came into contact with the prison department director-general and his family.”


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