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Outgoing US Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd (right) speaks with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong
Outgoing US Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd (right) speaks with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong last year at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

All eyes on NGO law: US Ambassador Todd

In a strongly worded article, outgoing US Ambassador William Todd has called on the Cambodian government to properly consider controversial new legislation governing NGOs, trade unions and the internet, a call welcomed by civil society representatives yesterday.

In the piece, published on Sunday and written during an ongoing trade mission to the United States, Todd expressed his pleasure at the interest in Cambodia he has encountered from businesses there, but warned: “To take advantage of this interest, Cambodia must project an image that attracts foreign investment, technology and human resources.”

“Cambodia’s image is affected” by the controversial legislation, he cautioned, backing a “call to action” from the 27-nation Community of Democracies – an intergovernmental coalition – which has urged the Cambodian government to release a copy of the proposed NGO law and implement it thorough consultation with civil society.

“As the Cambodian government considers the next steps, it is important to realise that the world is watching,” he writes.

The plea comes after years of wrangling over the draft NGO law, and less than two weeks after 272 local and international NGOs released a joint statement demanding the government immediately suspend plans to adopt it, fearing it will curb organisations’ freedom of movement.

Speaking yesterday, local rights groups welcomed Todd’s message.

“Every voice in this movement is important,” said Adhoc technical assistant Stella Anastasia. “We hope the international attention will push the government to move towards the right direction.”

That message was reinforced by Cooperation Committee for Cambodia’s head of communications Sin Putheary, who demanded “a meaningful consultation with civil society”.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch – which published its own strongly worded rebuke of the draft NGO law last month – highlighted the fears that continue to swirl around the legislation.

“All of these draft laws purportedly contain highly problematic, rights abusing provisions that raise questions about whether they should be passed at all,” said Asia division deputy director Phil Robertson.

In April, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the NGO law could be passed this month, despite the fact consultation with civil society representatives only took place during a previous draft.

But speaking yesterday, government spokesman Phay Siphan insisted the most recent draft would be made available to NGOs, but must first be reviewed by the Council of Ministers and signed off on by the prime minister.

“When it becomes an official draft law it goes to the National Assembly,” he said. “Then there will be some consultation with NGOs.”

Siphan also defended the cybercrime law, insisting it would only bring the country’s laws up to speed with legislation seen elsewhere in the world.

“It’s aimed at hackers, not at freedom of expression,” he said.

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