Justice Ministry Defends Emergency Law Ahead of Constitutional Review

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Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin speaks to reporters on November 6, 2018. (Heng Vichet/VOD)
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Ahead of a constitutional review of the state of emergency draft law, a Justice Ministry official again defended the sweeping legislation, saying it would not violate citizens’ rights despite concerns raised by the U.N. and civil society. 

Chin Malin, spokesman for the Justice Ministry, said during a press conference on Wednesday that the Constitutional Council will review the draft law on Friday.

“After the Constitutional Council sees this law and decides that it does not violate the constitution and people’s freedoms, the next step is this law will be sent to the head of state for signature to be introduced into law,” Malin said, while reiterating that the law would probably not be implemented if the Covid-19 infection rate remains as low as it currently is. 

No new Covid-19 cases were reported in Cambodia for the 10th consecutive day on Wednesday. The Health Ministry said 12 patients remained in hospitals, of the 122 people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus since January.

The draft Law on the Management of the Nation in Emergencies gives the government broad powers to restrict people’s movement and communications and implement martial law in times of war, pandemics or other national security crises, according to an unofficial translation of the text published by state media outlet AKP.

While King Norodom Sihamoni is visiting China for a health checkup, Malin noted that the acting head of state, Senate president Say Chhum, can sign the bill into law.

The king has also been abroad during the signing of other widely criticized laws, including the 2017 amendment to the political parties law and the 2018 lese majeste law

The National Assembly passed the draft state of emergency law just 16 days after Prime Minister Hun Sen said he was considering declaring a state of emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a relatively rapid response compared to other pending legislation, like a draft law on access to information, that has languished under government review for years.

Just after the Senate unanimously approved the draft law on Friday, Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, said that emergency measures must be “necessary and proportionate” to the national crisis at hand.

“The broadly worded language on the protection of national security and public order, ostensibly aimed at addressing COVID-19, can potentially be used to infringe on the right to privacy and unnecessarily restrict freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” Smith said in a statement.

Malin denied the rapporteur’s concerns, claiming that the majority of Cambodians supported the law and only “small groups” had disputed the intentions behind it. The law would strengthen democracy, rule of law and human rights in the country, he said.

“Her criticism could come from extreme fears…without clearly understanding the law’s content, or she might misunderstand the meaning of our law,” Malin added.

Compared to other countries, Malin argued that Cambodia’s emergency law was more balanced because it would divide powers between the prime minister, National Assembly and Senate, rather than placing full emergency power in the hands of one figurehead.

However, legal expert Sok Sam Oeun noted that neither the pending law nor the Constitution, which allows the king to invoke a state of emergency, specify how power would be split among government leaders.

“If we look into the Constitution and this law, there is nothing different,” he said. “The Constitution states that the king has power to announce a state of emergency, but within that period of emergency, it does not state what power the executive body would have, what power the legislative body retains nor what power the court still has…The [draft] state of emergency law also does not state this.”

Sam Oeun urged officials to better define the powers of the three government bodies before passing the law in order to avoid abuses of power. 

Since the 2018 national election, the ruling CPP has fully controlled both the executive branch and parliament.

Additional reporting by Hun Sirivadh

(Translated and edited from the original article in VOD Khmer)

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