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NGO law nears finish line

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay talks to the media last week in Phnom Penh after submitting a letter to the Constitutional Council.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay talks to the media last week in Phnom Penh after submitting a letter to the Constitutional Council. Vireak Mai

NGO law nears finish line

The Constitutional Council yesterday approved the controversial draft NGO law, rejecting a challenge by the opposition that the legislation breached the Kingdom’s charter.

The council’s green light – delivered yesterday afternoon – means the signature of the King, often viewed as a rubber stamp, is all that is needed before the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Associations (LANGO) is promulgated.

The decision came only hours after the nine-member council, controlled by a ruling party majority, heard arguments against the legislation by Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers led by Son Chhay.

The lawmakers – who last month lodged a complaint with the council claiming several LANGO provisions were unconstitutional and contravened international human rights conventions – asked that the law return to the National Assembly for amendments.

But, like previous attempts to stop the draft law – which after years on the back burner was passed by parliament on July 13 after just one day of public consultation and amid an opposition boycott – the protests came to nothing.

In a statement, the council supported the government’s position, saying there was nothing unconstitutional about the legislation.

“After listening to the reports of members, after listening to the clarifications of the royal government’s representatives, after listening to the clarifications of representatives of the [opposition] lawmaker group and after properly discussing the law, the [Constitutional Council] understands there is nothing unconstitutional about the creation, form or passing of the [LANGO],” the council’s decision stated.

The statement also noted that National Assembly President Heng Samrin had requested the draft law be examined.

Responding yesterday, Son Chhay said he wanted to see the council’s rationale for giving LANGO the all clear.

“There must be an explanation made public,” Chhay said.

“The [Constitutional Council] said that the law is not wrong and that there is no problem, well, they must explain why – I want to see the reasons that the decision was based on.”

But speaking after the meeting, Constitutional Council spokesman Prom Nhean Vichet declined to elaborate, saying it was against the body’s policy to discuss decisions.

Hundreds of local and international NGOs, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union have voiced concerns over the draft law, with several street protests held across the county.

Among chief concerns, listed by the International Federation for Human Rights, is the law’s mandatory registration clause, backed by criminal punishments for unregistered groups.

Critics also say LANGO’s registration and reporting requirements will place undue restrictions on civil society.

Other provisions, they say, will allow authorities to shut down groups critical of the government.

The government, however, argues the law is necessary to stop rogue NGOs, increase accountability and prevent groups from receiving funding from terrorists.

Government representatives have reacted angrily to criticism from the likes of departing US Ambassador William Todd and Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, who have both argued existing laws adequately regulate the sector.

Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, among the groups campaigning against the draft law, said the fight wasn’t over.

“We cannot stop the law moving forward but . . . we will monitor the enforcement of this law and if it affects the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people, then we will ask the government and our elected representatives to amend it.”

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