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Call for NGO law overhaul

Several hundred NGO representatives met in Phnom Penh yesterday to discuss concerns and recommendations regarding a controversial new draft NGO law, just days ahead of a consultation with the government on the issue.

“Our aim today is to make one joint statement with a clear position,” said Lun Borithy, executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia. “If we protect only one tree, all the trees in the forest will be destroyed.”

A draft statement dated Sunday and signed by 10 civil society organisations, states that after careful consideration of the law, they believe it is designed “to control rather than strengthen civil society; to remove civil rights; and to hinder the Cambodian democratic process”.

In an effort to coordinate the response within the sector, the CCC, with input from a wide range of major domestic and international NGOs operating in Cambodia, has also put together a consolidated report on the draft law. They plan to finalise recommendations to submit to the government ahead of Monday’s consultation.

The most recent draft of the report, dated January 2 and obtained by The Post yesterday, states that NGOs “recognise the need for a law regulating non-governmental entities” but that interest “must be balanced to ensure the freedom of its citizens to engage in law-abiding activities without undue restrictions or burdens”.

The report goes on to recommend wide-ranging changes to the legislation in order to safeguard the right to freedom of association.

The draft law, officially known as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations, has prompted concerns that informal groups of people will be banned from collective activities unless they are registered formally under the law, limiting democratic and grassroots activism.

Article 6, which states that associations and NGOs that are not registered in accordance with the law “shall not be allowed to operate any activity” in Cambodia, “clearly violates” the right to organise freely, the report states.

“This is a serious challenge, as it creates a Catch-22 in which activities to attract members and gauge interest are potentially illegal but yet without such activities, it may be difficult to gain membership,” it reads. The report adds that this may be “a deliberate strategy to prevent undesirable organisations from working or registering by delaying an MoU
or registration”.

Registration and reporting requirements in the law would also pose serious challenges to small and provincial organisations, the report argues, recommending an exemption from registration for informal community-based networks that share information but do not undertake activities.

The report suggests the draft law also draws a troublesome distinction between “domestic” and “foreign” NGOs, which appear to be determined on the basis of their staff’s nationality, rather than the content and scope of their operations.

By setting up requirements that only “Khmer nationals” can register associations and domestic NGOs, and that only foreigners can register international groups, the draft law “effectively denies foreign nationals the right to participate as founders in either associations or domestic NGOs” as well as the right of Khmer nationals to participate when registering an international NGO.

The report suggests eliminating nationality requirements and reducing the required number of members for establishing associations, set in the draft at 21 members and seven leaders. Individuals and groups should be able to decide whether or not to register their associations, the report states.

It also points to the lack of “clear and concise guidelines” for organisations facing involuntary suspension or termination. “There is also no requirement for the governmental authorities to provide notice to organisations under threat of involuntary suspension or termination,” the report adds.

Yesterday’s meeting, which was closed to press and included about 250 NGO representatives, followed a public statement, printed as an ad in local newspapers, by the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia, NGO Forum on Cambodia and Medicam, calling for “an extended consultation process”.

The government balked at the request yesterday, saying that the issue was a long time coming and the government had already delayed the consultation from December 28 to January 10 following pressure from NGOs.

“The government planned to draft the law since 2000 and all the NGOs knew for a long time,” said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. He added that the government will accept NGO recommendations on the draft “if their demands are made in appropriate manner”.

“If the NGOs want to respect the law there is nothing complicated and nothing to be concerned about,” he said.

“When the NGO law is adopted, the role of democracy in Cambodia will be strengthened. The NGOs will have to respect the law.”

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