Cambodia is not the only country to declare a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the legislation passed last week by Hun Sen’s government – like that in Orban’s Hungary – should be ringing alarm bells for anyone anywhere concerned with the erosion of human rights and democracy.
Passed by a parliament from which opposition members have been excluded, and open-ended in duration with no sunset clause, the new law suppresses freedom of speech and assembly, allows control of technology by any means necessary, and imposes draconian penalties including long jail terms and property confiscation.
Ostensibly designed to save the community from the ravages of the Coronavirus, there is already evidence that the new wide-ranging powers of surveillance, media and information suppression, and response to ‘obstruction’, are being used to crack down on those who dare to question the government’s authority, with arrests, increased surveillance and public attacks on human rights activists.
Repression of human rights in Cambodia is not new, and in many ways, the new law simply formally enshrines existing practice. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has retained authoritarian power for 35 years, has systematically suppressed any movement towards a mature democracy. For those of us who worked so hard to bring to forge the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, bringing to an end Cambodia’s catastrophic years of genocidal violence and civil war, the human rights and democracy record ever since has been a profound and ugly disappointment.
Hun Sen has repressed freedom of speech and assembly and has arrested many human rights activists who have tried to speak out for fundamental freedoms. Each attempt for a free election has been thwarted, with periodic resort to extreme violence. I have been persona non grata in Phnom Penh since writing in an internationally syndicated article in early 2014, after the shooting of five protesters, that his government ‘has been getting away with murder’, but that description remains no exaggeration.
With no independent judiciary to curb the power of government, those who dissent must constantly fear for their lives. The position became dire prior to the General Election of 2018, with the arrest and imprisonment on politically motivated charges of Opposition Leader Kem Sokha and many other politicians and grassroots activists. Kem Sokha was charged with treason and his trial is proceeding, to a drum-beat of international protest.
The Government disbanded the opposition party, leading to a one-party state. Over the past two years, the Government has arrested and incarcerated human rights advocates, political analysts, social activists, and even those from local communities who are known to have supported the now- silenced opposition party.
Those Cambodians who have, during recent years, courageously spoken truth to power have often found safety for a time by crossing the border to Thailand. That option is no longer available. On the same day that the legislation was passed, borders were sealed
With Australians and many other international observers leaving Cambodia, there is a danger that what is now happening inside the country will never be reported. When borders closed at the time of the Khmer Rouge more than forty years ago, Cambodians suffered and died and the world outside was unaware. Now there are commentators inside those borders who are willing to risk their lives to get the message out.
What measures can Australia and others adopt to give those courageous voices some protection? A huge contribution would be to enact ‘Magnitsky’ legislation – so named in the UK, USA and Canada to honour the Russian dissident tortured and killed after exposing government corruption – to specifically target, through sanctions such as asset freezes and visa restrictions on them and their families, those powerful Cambodian Government political leaders who have, so far with impunity, seriously abused the human rights of their people.
Momentum for such legislation is currently building in Europe, and an enquiry into whether Australia should adopt Magnitsky-style laws in regard to Cambodia is underway, with a committee established by the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Concerned Australians have the opportunity during the month of April to submit to this enquiry. 
Australia was at the forefront of the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991. As Foreign Minister at the time I said, ‘Peace and Freedom are not prizes, which, once gained, can never be lost. They must be won again each day. Their foundations must be sunk deep into the bedrock of political stability, economic prosperity and above all, the observance of human rights.’ Sadly, since 1993, the truth of that observation has been borne out over and again under the leadership of Hun Sen. Human rights abuses are rife and democracy — always fragile – has disappeared.
The Australian Government should follow the lead of others by now initiating and implementing, at the first available opportunity, Magnitsky legislation. Australia has been a world-leader in the past in showing our support for Cambodians in their pursuit of basic freedoms, justice and human rights. With the virus crisis, those rights are now more imperilled than they have been since the end of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and it’s time for our voice to be again heard.
Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister 1988-96.