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How human rights groups can help Cambodia’s COVID-19 response

According to the Asian Development Bank, Cambodia’s economy contracted by 3.1 per cent in 2020. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) predicts that Cambodia’s poverty rate will rise to 17.6 per cent, around 8 percentage points higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNDP modelling suggests that a social protection stimulus of 3.5 percent of GDP in Cambodia would prevent 570,000 people from sliding back into poverty. In response, the Cambodian government is providing cash transfers to poor and vulnerable households, wage subsidies, low-interest loans and tax relief for businesses in hard-hit sectors, a cash-for-work program in rural areas and support to small and medium-sized enterprises. Government cash relief has reached nearly 700,000 poor and vulnerable families.

The economic contraction adversely affected employment. According to a study by the Asia Foundation and the Center for Khmer Studies, average households in the garment and footwear sector lost one-third of their income. Disruption or closures of businesses due to the COVID-19 surge meant that many migrant workers were forced to return to Cambodia. Tourism workers were hurt the worst by COVID-19, reportedly losing 90 per cent of their income.

The study suggested some policy recommendations for financial institutions to improve loan restructuring policies to better provide protection to borrowers, including vulnerable workers. This study is a good example of how civil society organisations can provide practical assistance and policy advice. Such an approach prioritises looking for solutions from different angles instead of blaming institutions for the impacts of an unprecedented crisis.

Human rights groups tend to focus solely on political rights, yet this results in an incomplete picture, especially during COVID-19. During the COVID-19 crisis, fundamental human rights — including the right to life, to a decent job, to food, shelter, healthcare, education and subsistent livelihood — should be equally prioritised.

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