Category Archives: News


Cambodia: Emergency Bill Recipe for Dictatorship

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a speech on the current state of the coronavirus in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(New York) – The Cambodian government should withdraw its draft state of emergency law, which would empower Prime Minister Hun Sen to override fundamental human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 31, 2020, the Council of Ministers approved the “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency,” which would allow the government to restrict all civil and political liberties and target human rights, democracy, and media groups. The one-party National Assembly is expected to vote on the bill later this week or early next week. 

Hun Sen has claimed that the law is necessary to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government should submit a new draft that addresses the COVID-19 public health crisis while protecting basic rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and privacy, Human Rights Watch said.

“Even before the coronavirus, Hun Sen ran roughshod over human rights, so these sweeping, undefined, and unchecked powers should set off alarm bells among Cambodia’s friends and donors,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of passing laws to protect public health, the Cambodian government is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to assert absolute power over all aspects of civil, political, social, and economic life – all without any time limits or checks on abuses of power.”

The bill contains many overly broad and vague provisions that would violate fundamental rights without specifying why these measures are necessary and proportionate to address the public health emergency.

Under article 5, the government would have:

  • Unlimited surveillance of telecommunications: “Putting in place measures to surveil and keep track of all means [of communication] for the receipt of information via telecommunication contact systems in every form” (art. 5(10));
  • Control of media and social media: “Prohibiting or restricting the distribution or broadcast of information that could generate public alarm or fear or generate unrest, or that could bring about damage to national security, or that could bring into being confusion regarding the state of emergency” (art. 5(10) and (11));
  • Catch-all unfettered powers: “Putting in place other measures that are deemed appropriate for and necessary to responding to the state of emergency” (art. 5(12)).

Article 5 would also give the government complete authority to restrict freedom of movement and assembly.

Articles 1 and 4 of the bill would allow the law to be used even after the COVID-19 crisis ends. It says that a state of emergency can be declared when, “The people of the nation face danger” and “in order to defend national security, public order, the lives and health of citizens as well as property and the environment,” and “particularly” in cases of “an urgent public health crisis arising from the wide-spreading of contagious disease” and of “grave disruption of national security and public order” (arts. 1 and 4). Just as problematic, article 3 makes it clear that a state of emergency could be declared “for a limited or unlimited period of time,” without specifying the basis for making decisions about the length (art. 3).

The bill also would create a permanent opportunity for the government to declare martial law. Article 5(2) states that, “At times of war, or in other circumstances in which national security is confronted with grave danger, the country can be governed while under a state of emergency via a martial law regime” [emphasis added].  

Notably, the bill fails to provide any oversight for the use of these sweeping executive powers. On April 1, a Council of Ministers statement said that a state of emergency would not be declared for longer than three months – but added that the government would have discretion to extend it.

“The emergency law will allow Hun Sen, at long last, to run the country by fiat,” Adams said. “It will make his dictatorial rule legal and official.”

Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern that the law could be easily misused against critics of the government and nongovernmental organizations. The bill includes disproportionate fines and prison sentences for vague criminal offenses. For instance, article 7 creates the “crime of obstructing operations during a state of emergency,” punishable by one to five years in prison or five to ten years if the obstruction “leads to public unrest or adversely affects national security.” Article 8 would create the “crime of not respecting measures” required by the government, with punishments of up to one year in prison, or five to ten years if it “leads to public unrest.” These provisions could easily be used against critics of the government’s handling of the current COVID-19 crisis – or any other situation in which a state of emergency is declared.

Article 9 creates a serious risk for civil society organizations by stating that, “Legal entities can be deemed criminally responsible” for violations of the law. The Cambodian government has long targeted independent media as well as organizations that promote human rights and democracy. Fines up to US$250,000 would bankrupt most Cambodian organizations.

The draft law comes amid a longstanding crackdown by the Cambodian government on civil society, the media, critics, and the opposition. Independent newspapers and radio outlets have been shut or sold to owners with ties to the government. Social media networks face surveillance and intervention by the government, reinforced by the government’s adoption of the 2018 decree called, “Publication Controls of Website and Social Media Processing via Internet,” which allows for interference with online media and government censorship.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a state party, allows countries to adopt exceptional and temporary restrictions on certain rights that would not otherwise be permitted “in times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” But the measures must be only those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”

The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, clarified that states parties are required to “provide careful justification not only for their decision to proclaim a state of emergency but also for any specific measures based on such a proclamation.” The committee stressed that such measures “are of an exceptional and temporary nature and may only last as long as the life of the nation concerned is threatened.”

On March 16, a group of United Nations human rights experts declared that “Emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak … should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health […] and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

“From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hun Sen has denied or downplayed the risks posed to Cambodia by the coronavirus in Cambodia, but evidently he’s more than willing to join the bandwagon of autocratic leaders using the crisis to justify giving themselves vastly expanded powers,” Adams said. “The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should remind Hun Sen that if he wants to suspend certain rights, he has to notify the UN Human Rights Committee. But pandemic or not, many rights cannot be suspended, and Cambodia will remain bound by its international legal commitments.”


Pakistan: Workers Face Health, Economic Risks

Pakistani workers make face masks, which are in great demand worldwide due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, in Karachi, Pakistan, March 31, 2020. 


© 2020 AP Photo/Fareed Khan

(New York) – Pakistani authorities should take urgent steps to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19 on its most vulnerable workers, Human Rights Watch said today. Social distancing, quarantines, and the closure of businesses will have enormous economic consequences for garment and textile workers, domestic workers, home-based workers, and other workers in low-income households.

The Pakistan government should adopt measures protecting workers affected by COVID-19 from suffering loss of income that would push them further into poverty and deter them from self-isolating to contain the spread of the virus.

“The Pakistan government should take measures so that the loss of livelihood and income doesn’t compound the threats workers face to their health,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The economically marginalized are among the most vulnerable groups affected by COVID-19, and the government should urgently find ways to protect them.”

Pakistan has at least 2,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with at least 26 deaths. Though with little testing available, the numbers are likely much higher. The federal and provincial governments have announced partial or complete lockdowns. All factories not producing essential items have been closed. Experts estimate that between 12.3 million and 18.5 million people in various sectors may lose their jobs. According to Pakistan Workers’ Federation, as of March 28, at least half a million textile and garment industry workers had been dismissed in Punjab province alone.

Global supply chains in numerous sectors, especially the garment and textile industry, have already been disrupted, with global clothing brands canceling orders even for products already manufactured or in the process of being produced. This has exacerbated factory closures and layoffs. There is a risk that hundreds of thousands of workers in jobs linked to the global economy will be forced into part-time work for less income or lose their jobs.

Among the factories ordered to shut down are textile and garment factories that employ Pakistan’s largest industrial workforce. In the most recent figures available, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that in 2014 to 15, roughly four million people were employed in this sector, which contributed 8.5 percent of Pakistan’s GDP and at least 50 percent of its total exports. The numbers are higher now.

A lack of written labor contracts, inadequate legal protections, and poor enforcement of labor laws and regulations could heighten the problems during this crisis. Human Rights Watch research on the garment industry in Pakistan found that Pakistani labor laws and regulations do not adequately protect these workers, and constitutional safeguards are seldom enforced. The use of verbal contracts means that most do not have paid sick leave, social security, or health insurance, leaving them particularly vulnerable during an industrial shutdown and the pandemic.

According to a report by the global alliance of labor unions and nongovernmental organizations Clean Clothes Campaign, 85 percent of textile and garment workers in Pakistan lack formal contracts and therefore are not registered with the provincial social security institution. It is common practice in Pakistan’s garment and textile sector to hire workers on a piece-rate basis. Since these workers have no contract or appointment letter, the management can sidestep legal protections, leaving them laid off and without any salary during a shutdown.

These economic shutdowns have a disproportionate effect on women workers, especially home-based workers and domestic workers. On March 28, 2020, the Pakistan Workers’ Federation and Women Democratic Front demanded that “women workers, who are often invisible within the system, be accounted for and brought into official lists for wage provision and financial support.”

The government should, to the maximum extent of its available resources, provide low-wage workers with assistance to help offset the intense economic hardship and food insecurity from this situation. The federal and some provincial governments have taken measures to mitigate the impact on low-income and daily wage workers.

On March 23, the Sindh provincial government issued directives prohibiting employers from laying off workers during the lockdown period, ensuring payment of salaries, and establishing an emergency fund to address the negative economic consequences of COVID-19. The Sindh government has also set up a tripartite mechanism with representatives of employers, workers, and government to deal with salary complaints.

The federal and Punjab governments have announced economic packages for businesses and workers and monthly payments of PKR 3,000 (US$20) and PKR 4,000 ($27), respectively, for workers who lose their jobs. This is significantly lower, though, than the minimum wage in any province and is likely to be inadequate. The federal government and other provincial governments should consider other measures, including the Sindh government’s approach, Human Rights Watch said.

The Pakistan government has announced a tax reduction to help businesses deal with the economic impact of COVID-19. Unconditional tax cuts for employers are often poorly targeted and may not reach those most in need. Instead, expanded social insurance programs that include unemployment benefits would permit workers in the formal and informal economy to prioritize their health needs. Donors, international financial institutions, and global companies that depend on Pakistan’s workers should work together to create social protection for workers.

“The government’s failure to enforce labor laws has contributed to garment and textile workers being among the most vulnerable segments of Pakistani society,” Adams said. “The Pakistani authorities should meet their obligation to protect workers while considering necessary measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19.”


Malaysia: Release Inquiry Into Indigenous People’s Deaths

A Batek woman walks near her village in Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) – Malaysia’s Health Ministry should release the results and act upon its investigation into the deaths of 16 Batek villagers in mid-2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The deaths occurred amid reports of contamination of the Indigenous community’s water supply and infringements on their customary land.

In May and June 2019, illness swept through the Batek villages of Kuala Koh in Kelantan state in Malaysia. Sixteen people died and more than half the village’s nearly 200 inhabitants were hospitalized.

The Malaysian government promised a full investigation and recovered the remains for post-mortem examinations. On September 26, 2019, the health minister, Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, announced that the deaths were all due to measles and that the village water supply met water quality standards. However, the government has yet to release the post-mortem reports or the results of soil toxicology and water tests.

“Concerns about possible chemical and heavy metal contamination in the water and soil near Kuala Koh make it crucial for the government to publicly release the full results of its investigations into the villagers’ deaths,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Without full disclosure, questions about both the cause of death and the water quality will remain.”

The Batek are an Indigenous people living primarily in northeastern Peninsular Malaysia who have suffered a loss of forest habitat and been subjected to government relocation programs. The only water available to the communities of Kuala Koh comes from a water catchment area two kilometers downstream from a manganese mine.

After the Batek fell ill, the deputy water, land, and natural resources minister announced that the manganese mine would be closed, but noted that it was only one of a number of mines in the area. The Kuala Koh area is also suffering from deforestation and is surrounded by oil palm plantations.

In September, the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations, Malaysia (FPMPAM) announced that independent tests of the Kuala Koh water supply had revealed manganese in concentrations of 2.53 milligrams per liter – 25 times the World Health Organization (WHO) safety recommendation of 0.1 mg/liter. The health minister, while conceding that the water tests revealed the presence of heavy metals, stated that they were not present in lethal quantities and that heavy metals were not the cause of death.

Whether or not heavy metals in the water were a direct cause of death, water quality in Kuala Koh is a matter of serious concern to the Batek and other communities, and the full results of water and soil tests should be publicly disclosed.

The Malaysian authorities should end the neglect and marginalization of the country’s Indigenous peoples and ensure equal protection under the law.

National and local authorities should also make a public commitment to carry out the recommendations of the 2014 report by SUHAKAM, Malaysia’s national human rights commission, in its national inquiry into the land rights of Indigenous peoples in Malaysia.

The report makes 18 recommendations with regard to six main issues: recognize Indigenous peoples’ customary rights to land; provide a remedy for land loss; address land development issues and imbalances; prevent future loss of native Indigenous peoples’ customary land; handle land administration issues; and recognize land as central to Indigenous peoples’ identity.

The United Nations special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights also made a number of recommendations to the government on Indigenous peoples’ rights following her visit to Malaysia in 2017.

The Malaysian government should develop a clear plan to promote and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples in Peninsular Malaysia, as well as the states of Sabah and Sarawak, consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The Batek are entitled to see the full analysis of the water they drink and the soil on which they live,” Adams said. “Keeping this information in government file cabinets would not be acceptable for residents of Kuala Lumpur, nor should it be considered acceptable for an Indigenous community.”


Moscow’s Intrusive Proposal on COVID-19 Prevention

A man wearing a protective face mask rides an empty train on the Moscow Metro, Russia, March 30, 2020.

© 2020 Iliya Pitalev/Sputnik via AP

Moscow is considering a highly intrusive, online regime for enforcing the lockdown imposed this week to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As of April 1, Russia had recorded more than 2,300 cases, 1,630 of them in Moscow. According to one media report all residents would need to request permission each time they want to leave the house.

Residents would register on a municipal website, providing their photo, address, and other data. When they want to leave the house, for any reason, they would have to log in and provide a reason – such as taking out the trash or walking the dog. If they want to go somewhere, residents must enter the address of their destination. The system would reply by providing a unique barcode or by sending a code over SMS to be shown to police if stopped. If someone is stopped by police without a code, they may be forced to return home or fined. People authorized to work from their offices would be issued a single code for trips to and from the office.

The proposal allows for authorities’ use of residents’ geolocation data and financial transactions to track movements and ensure compliance with the lockdown.

Many countries have imposed lockdown regimes and authorized police to check residents who leave their apartments. In circumstances such as this global pandemic, imposing lockdowns are well within governments’ rights if not duties. But lockdowns are not a carte blanche to violate rights, including to privacy. They need to be necessary, proportionate, and lawful.  

Under the proposed online pass system, once authorities have access to personal and geolocation data, and possibly also banking data, they could obtain other information about people’s private lives, associations, and activities that do not serve the goal of containing and preventing the spread of COVID-19. Russia’s troubling record on digital privacy raises significant concerns about potential abuse of the information collected under this program.

Moscow’s public awareness campaigns about social distancing, hand-washing, and other preventative measures have been impressive. Authorities should stick with this and not intrusive, unjustified measures like snooping into people’s bank records. Other countries require residents to self-report why they need to leave their homes not seek permission, and this should suffice. The pandemic is bad enough. We don’t need dystopia as well.