(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should immediately grant United Nations agencies and aid groups unrestricted access to residents under strict lockdown in Covid-19 “red zones,” Human Rights Watch said today. The UN Country Team and donor countries should also publicly call on the government to end abusive police enforcement of public health measures.
In response to a rapid spike in Covid-19 cases, Cambodian authorities, as of April 29, 2021, had labeled six communes and parts of four others in Phnom Penh “red zones,” affecting more than 300,000 people. The residents of these areas face the country’s most restrictive lockdown measures, including a ban on leaving their homes except for specific medical reasons. Many have not been able to get food, medicine, and other necessities for weeks. Local and international groups have expressed their readiness to provide assistance directly to those most affected, but the authorities have denied them access.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government is failing to meet its obligations during the pandemic lockdown to protect poor and vulnerable communities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should immediately allow UN agencies and aid groups full access so they can help hungry people with food, health care, and other essentials necessary for their survival.”
Low-income communities in which many people lost their jobs during the Covid-19 economic crisis have been particularly hard-hit by these restrictions, Human Rights Watch said. Besides the restrictions on movement that make it difficult to purchase food and other necessities, residents in red zones are facing shortages and price increases for food and other essential items.
The authorities ordered the first city-wide lockdown on Phnom Penh and nearby Takmao city on April 15 without prior notice. Areas around the coastal city of Sihanoukville and populated Poipet city near the Thai border also became “red zones,” on April 23 and 24 respectively.
On April 18, the Phnom Penh municipal government created a Telegram group for people in need of emergency assistance. The group quickly grew to over 50,000 members sending pleas for help amid complaints that aid had not reached them for days. On social media, people reported that they were still waiting for food “donations” announced by the authorities. On various occasions, residents have taken their frustrations with the authorities to the streets, calling on officials to address the food emergency in their areas.
The Commerce Ministry on April 21 announced an online food store for residents in red zones, selling just eight items. Several brands are closely linked to top ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) officials, leading to claims of profiteering.
On April 27, the Phnom Penh government divided the capital into three zones based on Covid-19 levels: “yellow,” “dark yellow,” and “red.” On May 2, Hun Sen declared on his official social media page that the lockdown would be lifted on May 5, though strict localized lockdowns will continue.
Many red-zone residents have protested the hardships they have faced. During an April 29 protest in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, protesters held cardboard signs reading, “We are starving.” One protester said, “We are not rich. We live hand to mouth.” In response, a local commune chief labeled protesters the “opposition” and complained they were giving the authorities “headaches.”
On May 1, the Council of Ministers spokesperson, Phay Siphan, branded people claiming they had no access to food “liars.” The same day, Phnom Penh police warned that enforcement of lockdown measures in red and dark yellow zones was to become “tightened and […] stricter […] to keep the situation under control.”
Human Rights Watch expressed grave concerns about the authorities’ unnecessary and excessive use of force and the arbitrary arrest of critics. Phnom Penh authorities have endorsed using violence against violators of lockdown rules and videos posted online show police with batons and sticks beating people in the streets.
The media have reported that over 100 people face criminal charges; 9 have already been sentenced to one year in prison. Many of the accused have had no legal representation in violation of their fair trial rights. Sending more persons to Cambodia’s notoriously overcrowded prisons contradicts public health guidance to release people from custody where possible to stop the spread of Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 28, authorities filed further charges against the exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy for criticizing the lack of government aid to residents and calling on people to disobey lockdown measures.
The Cambodian government in March adopted the Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases. The law imposes disproportionate criminal punishments, including fines and prison sentences, on people who violate health, administrative, or other measures related to preventing the spread of Covid-19. UN experts have criticized the law for violating a number of rights and fundamental freedoms protected under international human rights law.
Any restrictions on civil and political rights, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), such as freedom of movement, should be based in law, strictly necessary to meet a legitimate government objective, and proportionate. The least restrictive alternative should be adopted and should be neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review. The use of canes or other weapons for corporal punishment is absolutely prohibited.
When governments impose quarantines or lockdowns, they are obligated to ensure access to food, water, health care, and caregiving support. Governments should also ensure continuity of services for older people, people with disabilities, and others who rely on home and community services and support, which means allowing service providers access to people under lockdown. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has stated that the right to food includes that everyone should have “physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”
“Even during an emergency, public health measures should not create new and preventable problems for those at risk,” Adams said. “Instead of blocking access, Hun Sen should be encouraging organizations to disburse food and other necessities to people in desperate need.”