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NGO law pilloried by UN expert

As the controversial draft NGO law finally reached the National Assembly yesterday, a UN rights expert became the latest to heap criticism on the proposed legislation, saying it proved that it was “not meant to serve the sector” but to “control it”.

Chheang Vun, a member of parliament with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, confirmed that the draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO) had been received by the National Assembly’s Permanent Commission.

After a meeting of the commission’s members, he said, the draft will soon be sent to one of the National Assembly’s “expert commissions” for review. When the review is complete, the Permanent Commission will decide whether to approve the law and set a date for parliament to officially vote on it.

“It is still an ongoing process within the National Assembly before we give it approval,” Vun said.

CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An, a member of the Legislation Commission, said he had not yet seen a copy of the draft law, so was unsure if any issues were likely to be found in the review.

The law, an unofficial draft of which was first obtained by the Post last week, has long instilled fear among civil society that it will hamper rather than help NGOs.

The legislation was green-lighted by the Council of Ministers on June 5, after Prime Minister Hun Sen recommended two articles be scrapped to “reduce red tape”.

But despite claims that people would be pleasantly surprised by the bill, a number of vaguely worded provisions and seemingly harsh restrictions remain.

After reviewing the draft, Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said today’s version “seems worse than the [heavily criticised] 2011 draft in many respects”.

“The most significant issue with the draft as it stands is that it requires all associations to register, and criminalizes those that don’t,” he commented via email.

“Any group of people coming together to pursue a common cause, be it a human rights issue or cleaning up their neighbourhood, is an association. And under this draft, every single one of them will be a criminal organization if they do not register.”

Kiai said that this provision is a “clear violation of international law” and “lacks common sense”.

“It’s frankly none of the government’s business,” he added.

Additional problems include the demand that NGOs “be neutral toward all political parties”, Kiai said.

“It seems to me that it can be interpreted so broadly that any criticism of the government could be banned.”

Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said the Cambodia National Rescue Party was waiting to see an official version of the draft before commenting on the legislation.

But, he said, a review of the “unofficial” draft suggested “the rights of civil society are limited so much it’s not acceptable”.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan argued that compared to legislation in other countries, the law is “very mild”.

“If they don’t understand it, call our government to explain,” he said.

Kiai, however, said that urgent changes need to be made and urged the National Assembly to “engage in meaningful consultations with all relevant stakeholders in a truly democratic process”.



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