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NGOs called to account

THE government has made public a draft version of the long-awaited NGO Law, legislation some fear could restrict the activities of groups in the Kingdom’s vast civil society sector.

The law, the passage of which is declared “urgent” in the draft, includes new registration and reporting requirements that apply to local organisations. The undated version of the law released yesterday includes 11 chapters and 58 articles, and will be debated by government officials and NGOs at a consultative meeting organised by the Ministry of Interior on January 10.

“We will be collecting their recommendations before we submit the draft law to the Council of Ministers,” Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said, adding that the law would “add transparency” to the country’s more than 2,000 NGOs.

“Some NGOs ask the government to be transparent with the people, but these NGOs themselves are not transparent with their staffs,” Khieu Sopheak said. “Some NGOs do not have transparency at all.”

The draft law requires NGOs to submit personal information about their leadership to the Ministry of Interior, and to submit financial statements that may be examined by the Ministry of Economy and Finance and the National Audit Authority. NGOs and associations are also required annually to “generate reports on activities, the status of their budget in the previous year, and action plan for the next year”.

All associations and domestic NGOs must reapply with the government within 180 days of the law’s passage or see their previous registration documents nullified, the draft law states.

“There are some concerns, some positives,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, who noted that the draft law released yesterday was less restrictive than a 2005 version. He added, however, that the expanded legal framework for registration and reporting could pose a challenge for some groups.

“I’m trying to look at it from [perspective of] the smaller, local, more community-based groups, and I’m just thinking that they are the ones that probably have to be more concerned than us with this draft law,” Ou Virak said. “The registration process, the reporting process, it’s just a lot of these formalities that they may find very difficult.”

NGO leaders said yesterday that they would be analysing the draft law in the coming weeks and would issue a joint statement ahead of the government meeting in January.

“We hope that this is just the start of a consultation, January, because for such a law, I think it’s in the government’s interest to ensure full participation,” said Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho.

“At least from our point of view, we really hope that this is just the start and not a one-day process.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in 2008 that the NGO Law was a priority for his new term, along with the Kingdom’s new Anticorruption Law and penal code.

Licadho has raised concerns about the penal code, which is being introduced this month, claiming that some provisions could restrict freedom of expression and public debate. Pilorge said the group would be reviewing the draft NGO Law against the penal code, the Anticorruption Law and the Demonstration Law “to ensure that all of them are in line with each other”.

Hun Sen has said the NGO Law is needed because “NGOs are out of control … they insult the government just to ensure their financial survival”. He has also voiced fears that terrorist groups could operate in the Kingdom by posing as NGOs.

In a joint statement issued last year, 237 local and international NGOs expressed concern over the proposed law, charging that “the legitimacy of civil society to create space for the ‘voice’ of affected communities is being called into question by the government”.

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