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Cambodia urged to adopt an inclusive rights-based disability law

National Assembly building
New National Assembly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Dreamstime

Advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, demands Cambodia revise its draft disability law to focus on inclusion.  

The group is asking the Cambodia government to align its bill with what is laid out in the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Cambodia’s draft law, titled Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, professes to protect the rights of people with disabilities, but instead, it uses language that upholds discrimination against people with disabilities.

“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The definition of disability is based on an outdated model in the draft and it features disparaging language such as “disorder,” “damaged,” and “malfunctioned,” suggesting that a disability needs to be “cured” or “fixed.”

The bill should be revised to carry out several key articles of the international treaty, Human Rights Watch said, thereby ensuring equal access to education, employment, transportation, social and legal services, and independent living. 

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

The education section specifies that the government will provide classes for “persons with disabilities who cannot attend an inclusive class.” However, the CRPD states that schools are obligated to provide reasonable, inclusive 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’s portion focusing on protection from sexual violence and harassment 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. It should develop complaints procedures that are accessible, anonymous, and provide for reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities.

The proposed law seeks to establish a Cambodian National Council for Persons with Disabilities. This government body should be supplemented by an independent body, as stated in the treaty, and include people with disabilities in decision-making in line with the fundamental principle of the treaty, “nothing about us, without us.”

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

According to Human Rights Watch, Cambodians 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 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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