Critics say government will use it to stifle freedom of expression among civil society groups
CAMBODIA’S NGO community is bracing itself for change ahead of the anticipated introduction of a new law regulating the Kingdom’s NGO sector, which is widely feared to be motivated by a government desire to stifle political activity and freedom of expression among the country’s civil society groups.
Concern over the new NGO law was reignited after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced in November that the government had moved ahead with drafting a law to regulate the activities of some 3,000 NGOs operating in the country.
“NGOs demand that the government shows transparency, but they can’t show the same to us,” he said during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of cooperation between NGOs and the government. “We respect the local and international NGOs whose activities serve humanity and help the government of Cambodia.... They will not be threatened by this draft law. But we believe that some NGOs whose activities seem to serve the opposition party will be afraid of it.”
The comments echoed those of a speech in late 2008 when Hun Sen announced that the creation of a new NGO law, along with a new penal code and an anticorruption law, was considered one of three priority pieces of legislation for his five-year term.
Hun Sen said at the time that the NGO law was needed because “terrorists might settle in the Kingdom under the guise of NGOs” and because “NGOs are out of control … they insult the government just to ensure their financial survival”.
Sieng Lapresse, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and the government official in charge of organising the new law, told the Post in February last year that, although the final legislation would be determined by the government, NGOs would be consulted.
“We have the draft legislation in our hands. We are in the process of sending the legislation out to NGOs, asking them for their views,” he said.
But over a year later, representatives of the NGO community say they have not seen the draft law or been consulted about it, expressing concerns that they will not be involved in the process at all, as the law is expected to be passed soon.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, a vocal critic of the NGO law, said the government had not given a specific timeline but had indicated that the new legislation would be passed soon after the controversial Anti-corruption Law, passed by the National Assembly in March.
“The government wants it as soon as possible. First, they were waiting for the Anti-corruption Law; now that has passed, the NGO law is next,” he said. “We expect it anytime soon; we don’t know when but it could be anytime within the next few months.”
He said debate had been muted by the fact that the NGO community had not been shown the draft law, but added that Hun Sen’s comments about the law indicated that the new regulations will be used to stifle political debate and freedom of expression.
“At this moment I’m not seeing any chance of having a good NGO law because all indications suggest otherwise,” he said. “The intention made public by government officials has been that basically they want to control NGOs.”
Vicente Salas, program development adviser at the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), an umbrella organisation currently representing more than 100 national and international civil society groups, described Hun Sen’s comments regarding the NGO Law as “threatening” and said it would be dangerous to stifle civil society’s freedom of expression.
“The NGO community is one of the last watchdogs; one of our roles is to hold the government accountable,” he said. “NGOs empower people to stand up for their rights and to know what they are.”
In November last year, 237 international and local non-governmental organisations released a joint statement expressing concern over the government’s plans, placing particular emphasis on the possibility that the law would curb freedom of expression and democratic process.
“International and national NGOs have legitimate concerns as to how this law may be interpreted and implemented. This concern focuses on the fact that the legitimacy of civil society to create space for the ‘voice’ of affected communities is being called into question by the government,” the statement read.
“Multiple statements by government officials claim that NGOs are guilty of ‘incitement’ of communities – a claim raised especially when there are land disputes and affected communities become vocal. NGOs are also berated for being part of the ‘opposition’ when they raise concerns about policy, process or practice by government. In this context the introduction of an NGO law, without adequate consultation and debate, is of grave concern.”
NGO representatives have also questioned the current need for an NGO law, arguing that many of the concerns cited by the government as reasons for the law are already covered by other laws.
Ou Virak said organisations operating unlawfully can be prosecuted under the laws regulating criminal activity, terrorism and corruption. “The
government has quite comprehensive tools to fight NGOs that are operating illegally,” he said.
Lun Borithy, executive director of the CCC, said local NGOs currently have to register with the Interior Ministry and foreign NGOs must register with the Foreign Ministry, but that there is little or no government regulation after NGOs have registered.
“They don’t have a mechanism to check on NGOs that have registered and find out who is active and who is not active – unless there is public outcry,” he said.
However he said that there were other types of internal regulation, such as the fact that NGOs typically have to submit annual reports to donors. He also said that CCC, in consultation with other NGOs, had developed a Code of Ethical Principles and Minimum Standards for NGOs, as well as a voluntary certification system that had proven to be an effective tool for increasing good practice in the NGO community.
Lun Borithy said that, for now, such self-regulation, in combination with the new Penal Code and Anti-corruption Law, was sufficient and that while it was normal for countries to introduce an NGO Law at some point, it was important that it was done in a transparent manner and not rushed through without discussion with civil society.
“Nobody’s saying that anyone’s against the law, but it’s highly worrying in terms of the restrictive trends,” he said.
Interior Ministry officials could not be reached for comment as of press time.