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Government stands by controversial NGO law

THE government defended its controversial new draft NGO law in the face of mounting criticism and asked for input from civil society representatives at a consultation in Phnom Penh yesterday.

At the meeting, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng reaffirmed the government’s commitment to passing the law and dismissed fears that it would be used to control Cambodian civil society groups.

“If the government had a plan to threaten NGOs or associations, it would not need to have the presence of NGOs. The second reason is that if we planned [to threaten NGOs], there is no need for a workshop like you see today,” Sar Kheng said. “There are very few laws that we get to discuss in public.”

Sar Kheng said the law was “modest and does not infringe on rights”, and that he didn’t see how it would restrict NGOs’ activities, attempting to address claims that the law limits the right to freedom of association.  

In his overview of the draft law, Nuth Sa An, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, repeatedly said compliance would not be difficult.

Sar Kheng also rebuffed calls for the government to reconsider the legislation’s legal necessity before moving forward.

“The government must have the law on organisations,” he said, adding that other countries in the region had “similar laws”. Moreover, he argued, the government had to take into account “the whole picture”, which included the possibility of terrorists using NGOs as cover for their activities.

The International Centre on Not-for-Profit Law has described law’s articles on mandatory registration as a “restriction” on freedom of association, and a number of NGOs operating in Cambodia have requested that it be voluntary for local associations, which they fear will be most impacted.

We hope that an NGO law can facilitate the growth of this sector, and not hold it back.

Cheap Sopheak, deputy president of the Farmer and Nature Network, said the law was unusable after just one day of consultation because it contained a number of vague articles that would be difficult for small organisations to handle.
“This law must be revised further. I would like to request the government to have voluntary registration for organisations, which would avoid complicated issues for small organisations,” he said on the sidelines of the meeting.

The government had so far not responded to the request for a longer consultation or the establishment of a joint government-NGO working group, said Chith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum.

Nuth Sa An said during the meeting that he would report on the meeting’s discussions to officials at the ministries of foreign affairs and the interior, which will decide whether to agree to the request.

Meanwhile, the international community has called on the government to reconsider the need for the law.  

“We strongly urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to reconsider whether the draft NGO law is in fact necessary and, if so, to adopt and implement a law consistent with a commitment to expand, rather than restrict, the freedom for civil society organisations to operate,” United States embassy spokesman Mark Wenig said in a statement yesterday.

“The US strongly believes that a strong, independent, and diverse civil society community is indispensable to democracy.”

The British Embassy said yesterday that it had made own views “clear” to the government. “We hope that an NGO law can facilitate the growth of this sector, and not hold it back,” Lesley Saunderson, the embassy’s deputy head of mission said.

Two regional organisations, FORUM Asia and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, said they were “deeply troubled by a Cambodia government plan to pass a restrictive law” for NGOs, and called for an extended consultation process in a joint statement.

Laurence Bernardi, spokeswoman for the French Embassy, said she had no public comments, but that the embassy would monitor the issue.

“We don’t want to interfere in this debate which is, first of all, a process to be handled by the national actors of the Cambodian society,” she said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE

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