Cambodia should halt efforts to radically limit the right to freedom of expression through adoption of lèse-majesté legislation which would criminalize the exercise of some expression, said the ICJ today.
The Spokesperson for the Cambodian Council of Ministers, Phay Siphan, reportedly announced on Facebook today that the Council of Ministers had approved an amendment to the Cambodian Criminal Code which would make it a crime to insult the Cambodian King, carrying a penalty of one to five years imprisonment and/or a fine of two million Riel (USD 500) to ten million Riel (USD 2,500).
“The Cabinet’s approval of a lèse-majesté law appears to be a further attempt by the Government to ‘weaponize’ the country’s legislation against its perceived opponents,” said Kingsley Abbott, ICJ’s Senior International Legal Adviser.
“The Government’s ongoing misuse of the law is particularly concerning given the lack of independent and impartial judges to provide appropriate checks and balances on its power,” he added.
The ICJ has previously raised concerns about abuses arising from the lèse-majesté law in neighboring Thailand to curb freedom of expression.
Exercises of expression which are critical to a democratic society under the rule of law, including commenting on public policy and political questions, are sometimes stifled and punished under these laws.
The right to freedom of expression is protected under international law and should never be subject to criminal penalties, let alone imprisonment, which is a manifestly disproportionate penalty for the exercise of the fundamental right to free expression, the ICJ said.
Kingsley Abbott, Senior International Legal Adviser, ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Office, t: +66 94 470 1345, e: kingsley.abbott(a)icj.org
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a State party, protects the right to freedom of expression. This right includes the “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”
In its General Comment No. 34 on article 19, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC), the body that monitors compliance of State parties with the ICCPR, expressed concern about the use of lèse-majesté laws and asserted that “imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty” for defamation.
The HRC further clarified that “all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition” and that “laws should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned”.
In February 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, urged Thailand to refrain from using the lèse-majesté law as a “political tool to stifle critical speech” and asserted that “(l)esè-majesté provisions have no place in a democratic country”.
The legislative amendments ratified by the Council of Ministers will now be sent to the National Assembly, the lower house of the Parliament of Cambodia, for approval.
Upon approval by Parliament, the amendments would come into force when signed by the King.
At the same time as approving a lèse-majesté law, the Council of Ministers reportedly approved other constitutional amendments which appear to impose impermissible restrictions on the rights to free association and freedom of assembly, also protected under the ICCPR.
These legislative amendments reportedly include provisions that (i) the right to vote or the right to stand as an election candidate can be restricted by domestic legislation, (ii) the right to form a political party would require “placing the nation’s interests first”, (iii) prohibit individuals from “undermining the interests of the nation” and (iv) allow Secretaries of the State to be appointed by Royal Decree rather than by Parliamentary vote.
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