Cambodia: Authorities must avert COVID-19 humanitarian crisis

The Cambodian government must take urgent steps to avert an emerging humanitarian and human rights crisis under the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, said Amnesty International today. 

Since 19 April, a strict lockdown has been put in place in parts of the capital, Phnom Penh, and other cities including Takhmao, Preah Sihanouk and Poipet. On Monday 26 April, the lockdown was extended to 5 May.  

The government has designated areas where there is an especially severe COVID-19 outbreak as “red zones”. People in red zones have been prohibited from leaving their homes even to buy food and other basic necessities. Markets in red zones have been shuttered and mobile food vendors barred, leaving many at-risk residents to go hungry. Some households within these zones have been under lockdown since 9 April. 

In Phnom Penh alone, an estimated 87,349 households comprising 293,791 people are located within red zones. In Preah Sihanouk, the red zones cover 4,886 households amounting to an estimated 23,854 individuals. 

Amnesty International has received alarming reports that even humanitarian NGOs have been barred from distributing food and other essential aid within red zones despite the urgent needs of at-risk residents.  

“The Cambodian government’s outrageous mishandling of this COVID-19 lockdown is causing untold suffering and sweeping human rights violations across the country,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director.  

“Right now, residents of ‘red zones’ and others in Cambodia are going hungry because of fundamentally unreasonable policies. The Cambodian authorities need to urgently change course by working with NGOs and UN agencies to facilitate humanitarian access to red zones. Everyone under lockdown must be provided access to adequate food, water, health care and other essential items.” 

Millions of people in Cambodia are already suffering serious economic hardship after a year of the pandemic. For many, this mismanaged lockdown has brought them to the precipice of a humanitarian crisis, too.

Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director.

“Millions of people in Cambodia are already suffering serious economic hardship after a year of the pandemic. For many, this mismanaged lockdown has brought them to the precipice of a humanitarian crisis, too.   

“The Cambodian government can, and must, take decisive steps to mitigate this disaster. It is also imperative that the UN Resident Coordinator and UN Country Team proactively make every effort to seek approval to deliver emergency assistance to those in need, including in red zones,” said Yamini Mishra. 

Inadequate, politicised distribution of food and essentials 

Plans for a government cash distribution initiative aimed at households living in the most extreme poverty were abruptly cancelled last week. Meanwhile, efforts made by the government to provide food aid have been haphazard and inadequate, and marred by reports of discriminatory distribution affecting individuals who are perceived to be critics of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).  

The Ministry of Commerce has launched an online shop promoting the sale of a limited selection of slightly-discounted products for people in red zones. Many of the products are linked to the business interests of senior members of the CPP. This online shop is the only source of food delivery for residents in red zones, many of whom live below the poverty line and cannot afford the products.  

“COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns can play an important role in safeguarding the right to health. However, restrictions must be carefully crafted and implemented with the minimum impact on human rights and pay special attention to the needs of marginalised groups. Cambodia’s lockdown restrictions must be coupled with a major ramping up of social protection measures and humanitarian assistance. People with no access to food cannot stay home indefinitely.”  

Hungry residents threatened 

Many residents, including those with young children and older family members, have voiced desperation as their food supplies have begun to run out. With markets shuttered and mobile food vendors barred from selling essentials, many are unable to access the basic necessities they require to survive. 

Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab has reviewed 23 Facebook posts and videos emanating from areas under lockdown. The organization has verified multiple videos showing residents making desperate pleas for assistance within red zones, and others in which local residents can be seen pleading with police for help.  

Amnesty International is concerned that people under lockdown who have sought to voice their concerns publicly have faced reprisals and threats. The organization has received alarming reports that some individuals who posted their concerns and pleas for help on Facebook have been threatened and intimidated by local authorities. 

Some residents who are running out of food have engaged in spontaneous and localised protests against the measures around Phnom Penh. On 20 April Prime Minister Hun Sen warned residents in a speech that the government could deny them food aid if they continue protesting and voicing their concerns. 

“Rather than retaliating against desperate residents for voicing their concerns, the Cambodian authorities need to focus on facilitating access to essential aid and services to those in need.  

“The Cambodian government’s threats and reprisals are seriously exacerbating an already desperate situation. Simple measures, such as enabling mobile food vendors to operate in line with COVID-19 safety measures, could have a massive impact,” said Yamini Mishra. 

On 18 April, Phnom Penh City Hall created a Telegram group to coordinate emergency food requests. By 24 April, the group had reached 48,000 members where people shared thousands of messages with pleas for food and support.  The Phnom Penh authorities have sporadically disabled messaging in the group, apparently in response to the overwhelming number of pleas for help by residents.  

Individuals undertaking mandatory 14-day home quarantine as a result of being in contact with people who tested positive for COVID-19 have also spoken about the desperate circumstances they are facing. Many garment workers have been impacted by COVID-19 clusters affecting garment factories and have spoken out on Facebook. 

One out-of-work construction worker under quarantine in Phnom Penh posted a picture of himself with his infant child on Facebook on 19 April, pleading for help because his family have “no work, no money, no food… Pity the little baby with no milk.”  

Violent crackdown linked to abusive COVID-19 law  

People who break COVID-19 restrictions face severe and disproportionate penalties under Cambodia’s highly problematic new COVID-19 law. 

The Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases (COVID-19 Law) was promulgated on 11 March 2021. It provides for a range of excessive and disproportionate penalties for individuals who break COVID-19 restrictions, including prison sentences of up to 20 years and fines up to 20 million riels (USD $5,000). Under Article 10, for example, disobeying administrative measures is punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment if it is deemed to seriously impact public health.  

According to local human rights group LICADHO, at least 258 people were arrested by the authorities under the COVID-19 Law between 10-25 April and fined, sent to quarantine centers and/or sent to court. Out of this 258 people, LICADHO reports that 83 were charged and jailed. In one such case on 20 April, the Takeo Provincial Court sentenced four young people to one year in prison for gathering, drinking and dancing in violation of COVID-19 restrictions. 

On 23 April, Phnom Penh’s City Hall announced that COVID-19 testing was mandatory for everyone within red zones, and the Ministry of Justice announced that anyone who refused a test would face fines up to 5 million riel ($1,250) under the COVID-19 Law. The next day, photos and videos emerged showing large crowds gathered at testing sites in red zones to be tested, with authorities apparently failing to facilitate physical distancing.  

“Previous epidemics have shown that coercive approaches to enforce public health restrictions are not based in scientific evidence, are contrary to best practice and risk undermining the effectiveness of the response. 

“Instead, Cambodian authorities should implement a response that is rooted in the respect of human rights and that emphasises empowerment and community engagement, including policies that build trust and solidarity”, said Yamini Mishra. 

Police have also used unnecessary and excessive force against those believed to have broken lockdown restrictions. Amnesty International has analyzed videos of police in Phnom Penh threatening and beating people with what appear to be bamboo canes. Phnom Penh governor Khuon Sreng and Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesperson San Sokseyha both acknowledged the way in which force was used and sought to justify it as necessary to safeguard public health. 

“Authorities in Cambodia clearly need a radical rethink of their COVID-19 suppression efforts. Human rights must be at the core of this revised approach, and meaningful, open cooperation with national and international partners, including humanitarian actors, should be embraced without delay”, said Yamini Mishra. 

Background 

Cambodia has struggled to contain a third wave of COVID-19 having previously avoided a major outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic. A significant outbreak occurred in late February after a group of tourists reportedly bribed their way out of mandatory hotel quarantine.  

According to the United Nations, poverty is forecast to almost double in Cambodia as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting up to 17.6 per cent of the population. The country has a poorly developed social security infrastructure, leaving those whose income is disrupted, including workers in the garment sector and informal workers, in precarious economic situations. 

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ General Comment 14 states that any restrictions and limitations on the grounds of public health “must be in accordance with the law, including international human rights standards, compatible with the nature of the rights protected by the Covenant, in the interest of legitimate aims pursued, and strictly necessary for the promotion of the general welfare in a democratic society”. They should be of limited duration, subject to review, and the least restrictive alternative must be adopted where several types of limitations are available. 

The right to food is recognised as a human right in several international human rights instruments including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Cambodia is a state party. To comply with obligations related to the right to adequate food, states must immediately tackle hunger and progressively ensure that “every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement”. 

According to international standards on the use of force, law enforcement officials may only  use force that is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate objective even in times of emergency. Law enforcement officials should not use force to enforce lockdown provisions when people breach them in order to meet their basic needs for survival. 

Moreover, law enforcement officials should in no circumstance resort to the use of force as a means of punishment, including for violations of lockdown regulations. Corporal punishment also violates the right to be free from torture and other ill-treatment and it is absolutely prohibited under international human rights law.   

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