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Front side of the National Assembly of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, May 7, 2019. © Daniel Kalker/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should revise a draft disability law to ensure equal rights for people with disabilities in accordance with international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia, in 2012, ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which aims to ensure full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by everyone with disabilities while enabling their full inclusion and equal participation in society.

The draft Law on the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has not been made public, but Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the bill, which is dated March 3, 2021. The draft law purports to create a legal framework for the rights of people with disabilities, but it fails to adopt a human rights-based approach. It uses language that reinforces stigma against people with disabilities rather than ensuring equal access to education, employment, transportation, social and legal services, and independent living.

“Cambodia has long needed a disability rights law, but the proposed bill needs to drop stigmatizing language and to support the right to be fully included in society, not marginalized,” said Kriti Sharma, disability rights expert at Human Rights Watch. “If the draft law is revised to meet international standards, the government would be taking a monumental step toward ensuring equal rights and strong social protections for the large number of people in Cambodia who have disabilities.”

The draft law’s definition of disability is based on an outdated paradigm guided by a medical model of disability, and uses stigmatizing language such as “disorder,” “damaged,” and “malfunctioned,” implying that a disability needs to be “cured” or “fixed.”

The bill should be revised to carry out key articles of the international treaty, Human Rights Watch said. This includes CRPD article 4 on requiring consultation with people with disabilities; article 12 on equal recognition before the law; article 14 on the right to liberty and security, including preventing arbitrary detention in institutions; article 15 on freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; article 19 on the right to live independently and be included within the community; and article 29 on participation in political and public life, including ensuring the right to seek public office.

The draft law sets out “levels of disability,” which is discriminatory because it creates a basis for excluding people with certain disabilities from living independently or accessing appropriate support. The government should reformulate the provision to reflect the requirement in the international covenant for adequate support measures for people with disabilities that would allow them to be fully included and live independently in society.

Chapter IV sets out rights of people with disabilities and the government’s obligations, including on employment, health services, education, accessibility arrangements, equal participation, and legal services. The section on education specifies that the government will provide classes for “persons with disabilities who cannot attend an inclusive class.” This introduces a form of segregation instead of providing for inclusive quality education. Under article 24 of the convention, government schools and educational institutions have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations – necessary and appropriate adjustments based on the individual needs of people with disabilities – and teaching using inclusive methods to ensure that instruction is adapted to the needs of all students.

The draft law article focusing on protection from sexual violence and harassment falls short of article 16 of the convention, which safeguards against all forms of exploitation, violence, and abuse, including those based on gender, and provides guidance for monitoring systems and support services. The bill uses vague language, merely requiring “appropriate and effective measures” and does not offer protections from other forms of violence such as physical violence, exploitation, and abuse. The article should set out complaints procedures that are accessible, anonymous, and provide for reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities.

Chapter III seeks to establish a Cambodian National Council for Persons with Disabilities. This government body should be supplemented by an independent body, as required by article 33 of the treaty, and include people with disabilities and representative organizations in decision-making in line with the fundamental principle of the treaty, “nothing about us, without us.”

In 2019, Cambodia rolled out a disability identification card pilot project in eight provinces, and said that by early 2021 it had registered about 14,000 people with disabilities. This card is designed to provide access to social benefits. However, the process has been slow, with inadequate dissemination of information to people with disabilities about registration and inadequate training for officials. “Of course, right now the disability ID doesn’t have much value,” Yeap Malino, the head of the department on disabilities, said in February.

In June 2020, the Interior Ministry proposed a draft Public Order Law, which will further entrench discrimination against people with psychosocial disabilities – mental health conditions. The current draft bill provides the authorities with unfettered powers to arbitrarily strip people with psychosocial disabilities of their civil liberties and detain them in institutions.

Human Rights Watch, in a 2013 report, documented that people in Cambodia with real or perceived psychosocial disabilities continue to be shackled – chained or locked in confined spaces – due to lack of adequate and accessible community-based services, as well as stigma and discrimination. The government should immediately ban shackling, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Cambodian government should not waste the opportunity to move away from a system of isolation and abuse and should build a system of support and independence,” Sharma said. “The United Nations, donors, and others involved in drafting Cambodia’s disability law should insist on a final text that is consistent with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

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