Cambodia: Repressive draft public order law targets the most vulnerable in society

Cambodia’s draft public order law is an assault on human rights that targets the most vulnerable in society, Amnesty International said today in a joint statement endorsed by 65 national and international civil society organizations calling for the proposed legislation to be scrapped.

An initial draft of the Law on Public Order was circulated by the Ministry of Interior in July. The draft contains a multitude of overly broad and arbitrary provisions which violate international human rights law and Cambodia’s own constitution.

“This proposed law is a blatant effort by the Cambodian government to expand its arbitrary control over the everyday lives of ordinary people in Cambodia. It is littered with frankly ridiculous restrictions on people's freedoms - ranging from bans on wearing face masks inside buildings to speaking loudly,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Regional Director.

“It is also an assault on the poor, effectively criminalizing both homelessness and begging. In a country lacking a comprehensive system of social protection and where livelihoods have been severely impacted by COVID-19, this could leave many more people going hungry and denied their right to an adequate standard of living.

“It further discriminates against people with mental illnesses based on unscientific and punitive understandings of mental health,” Ming Yu Hah added in response to a provision which prohibits people with “mental disorders” from “walk[ing] freely in public places”.

As well as disproportionately impacting certain marginalized groups, the law would constitute a significant setback for women’s rights in Cambodia. Article 36 of the draft legislation prohibits women from wearing clothes that are “too short” or “too see-through”.

“This law poses a serious threat to women’s rights in Cambodia, subjecting women to an increased risk of harassment and prosecution for their clothing choices. But Cambodian women are showing that they will not stand for this misogynistic and regressive assault on their rights. They are organizing, resisting and loudly making it clear that they will not be silenced”, said Ming Yu Hah.

“Reprimanding women for what they wear serves to reinforce the notion that women are to blame for the sexual violence they suffer, and thereby further entrenches the culture of impunity which exists in relation to gender-based violence in Cambodia.”

Meanwhile, the draft law requires approval from authorities for the “use of public spaces” and would permit authorities to stop an event if authorization has not been sought. It empowers local authorities to “assign contractual officials to assist in maintaining public order” to enforce it.

“This law would severely undermine the right to freedom of peaceful assembly by contradicting the guarantees enshrined in Cambodia's law on peaceful assembly, the Cambodian constitution and international human rights law,” said Ming Yu Hah.

“It would further empower private security contractors with a track record of abusing human rights and harassing those who exercise their right to peaceful assembly. These often unaccountable security guards would gain additional powers to police women’s choices in public spaces – which is particularly alarming in light of their alleged role in the death of Pen Kunthea in 2017, a crime for which nobody was ever held accountable.”

Background

The draft Law on Public Order was released amid an escalating crackdown on fundamental freedoms in Cambodia.

The Cambodian authorities have already used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to introduce a deeply problematic state of emergency law, which  grants unfettered powers to the government to restrict human rights.