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NGO law a ‘disaster’

Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh on International Labour Day in 2011 to protest against the NGO law.
Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh on International Labour Day in 2011 to protest against the NGO law. LICADHO

NGO law a ‘disaster’

A copy of the long-secret draft law on NGOs obtained yesterday seemingly confirms civil society’s longstanding fears that the legislation’s language could be used to hamper, rather than help, the Kingdom’s NGOs.

The law on associations and non-governmental organisations (LANGO) – a draft of which was last seen by the public in 2011 – purports to be aimed at “safeguarding the rights and freedoms” of NGOs and protecting their “legitimate interests”. Critics, however, say the law’s provisions place an onerous burden on civil society.

Despite government claims that critics would be “surprised” by the draft’s friendliness and flexibility, an unofficial copy reveals a number of vaguely worded provisions and seemingly harsh restrictions.

A local NGO, for instance, must have “at least five founding members . . . [who have] never had a position of leadership of any association or [local NGO] which had been deleted from registration”.

The Interior Ministry can also deny a request for registration if the organisation’s “aims and objectives . . . jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of the Cambodian national society”.

Those not registered are “not allowed to conduct any activities” in Cambodia, it says.

Even if approved, NGOs “must be neutral toward all political parties”, and the government can request full details of activities and finances if it deems it “necessary” to do so.

Any associations thought to “jeopardize peace” will be punished “in accordance with the existing criminal law”.

If local NGOs operate without government approval they could be fined between 5 million and 10 million riel ($1,230 to $2,460), while foreigners could face deportation “and other criminal punishment”.

Before being green-lighted on Friday, two articles were removed by Prime Minister Hun Sen – one stating that “administrative expenses . . . shall not exceed 25 per cent of the total budget”, and the other ordering that an organisation “declare its agreement on aid projects to the Council for the Development of Cambodia”.

Both articles dealt only with international groups.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said if passed in its current form the law will be “an unmitigated disaster for civil society”.

The law would serve as “an axe that Hun Sen and the government will no doubt use to chop off the heads of NGOs and associations active in protecting human rights, exposing official corruption, and demanding accountability for elites’ looting of land and natural resources”.

But Meas Sarim of the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Administration said the law had improved since 2011.

“I really don’t understand why NGOs are so concerned about this,” he added.

The opposition will meet today to discuss the draft, said CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua.

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