Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - NGOs fear new law will curtail their freedom to act

NGOs fear new law will curtail their freedom to act

NGOs fear new law will curtail their freedom to act


The government's proposed law on Local Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations

(NGOs) has drawn heavy criticism from civil society groups wary of the legislation's

potential to compromise their ability to operate independently.

Environmental NGO WildAid provides "Lucky," one of four resident elephants at Phnom Tamao Zoological Gardens and Wildlife Rescue Center, with an opportunity to make some art. Recently, a legal debate has been sparked concerning the rights and responsibilities of Cambodia's legion of NGOs.

The complex registration processes and stringent reporting requirements outlined

in the draft law could dramatically reduce the number of NGOs in Cambodia and seriously

curtail their freedom from governmental interference.

"The very acronym 'NGO' means Non-Governmental Organization," said Naly

Pilorge, director of Licadho, a local human rights NGO. "Obviously it is important

that [NGOs] are accountable and transparent - but there are other ways of being accountable

than submitting detailed information to the government which may put victims, clients

and NGO workers at great risk."

Cambodia's Ministry of Interior has 1,800 associations and 300 NGOs registered with

it, said Sak Sitha, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior (MoI), at

an NGO fair in June this year. Collectively, NGOs contribute approximately $200 million

a year to the economy, he said.

Although the government recognizes the valuable work NGOs undertake, they have long

wanted to exercise more control over this sector, Sitha said. Concerted action to

achieve this was taken two years ago when the government asked for World Bank assistance

to draft a law to regulate NGOs - saying it wanted to have one in place by December


"At the moment it is quite easy to form a Cambodian NGO," said John Clark,

World Bank social scientist, in the World Bank's October newsletter. "But nobody

is very clear what NGOs are, and what rights and responsibilities they have."

The World Bank, aware of the trepidation within local civil society, has advised

the MoI to abandon the imminent deadline for the drafting of a new law and begin

instead a structured process of dialogue between NGOs and the government.

"There are many instances of bad NGO laws throughout the world," Clark

said. "The outcome is only likely to be a good NGO law if the process is good

and if NGOs trust the process and accept that a good NGO law will help them."

But despite attempts to create a positive dialogue between government and NGOs -

Star Kampuchea, a local NGO, has established a working group of NGOs to discuss the

law - NGOs remain wary of the process, largely as a result of the government's track

record on NGO relations.

"The government in the past has proved itself selective," Pilorge said.

"NGOs that provide welfare services and do not criticize the government are

allowed to operate freely, but if there is any degree of criticism, then the government

tends to use tactics to threaten or intimidate those NGOs."

There is, potentially, some need for greater regulation of NGOs in Cambodia, said

Hing Channarith, founder of the Cambodian Children's Advocacy Foundation.

"An NGO I have heard of would go out into the provinces and ask people to pay

to join the NGO, promising all sorts of benefits in return," he said. "Then

they disappear and the people who have paid money have no way of finding them or

prosecuting them."

The government says an NGO law could help to stamp out corrupt NGOs of this type,

thus benefiting both the Cambodian populace and NGOs doing genuinely good work. But

it also said the law would allow for greater control of NGOs deemed "inappropriate."

"There are some NGOs that take the opportunity to do inappropriate things,"

Sitha said. "They oppose the government to serve their own ends."

The law is intended not simply to control, but to create a positive environment for

NGOs that would give them a legal basis to protect themselves, promote their work,

and provide better opportunities for cooperation with the government, Sitha said.

The results of introducing NGO laws in other countries - for example, China, Thailand,

and Malaysia - are mixed.

"The governments [of these countries have] used registration requirements to

restrict the activities of civil society organizations critical of the government,"

a May 2006 Licadho briefing paper stated. "Even though these countries' laws

theoretically protect freedom of assembly and association."

The World Bank acknowledges that the introduction of NGO laws can be a problem.

"Examples have arisen over the last three or four years where new NGO laws have

been developed that strongly restrict the freedoms for NGOs and citizens," Clark

said. "NGOs know that NGO laws can be a threat."

In October 2004, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Human

Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani, tabled a report on the status of human rights defenders

worldwide. The report focused on the trend by various governments to use NGO laws

to restrict the activities of human rights NGOs.

"The criminalization of non-registered human rights groups, unnecessarily burdensome

and lengthily registration procedures [and] state scrutiny of and interference with

an organization's management, objectives and activities," can follow the passage

of an NGO law, the report states.

"All of the key concerns above could well result from the passage of an NGO

law in Cambodia," the Licadho briefing paper said.

"In the Cambodian context any NGO law - regardless of its particular content

- poses a threat to the work of human rights defenders and other NGOs," the

paper said. "The objectives of all NGOs and development agencies - both foreign

and domestic - can be compromised."

One major concern is that it will not just be prominent advocacy NGOs that are targeted,

but that smaller local organizations working on specialized problems will be unable

to operate.

"Yes, an NGO law might result in watchdog NGOs such as Licadho being targeted,

but we have some ability to highlight these issues to the general public," Pilorge

said. "I worry that smaller NGOs will not even be able to go through the registration


Already, it is far harder for smaller NGOs to operate freely in Cambodia, as the

government monitors their activities very closely, Pilorge said.

"For example, in Mondulkiri and Rattanakkiri, NGO workers from smaller NGOs

have to request permission from local authorities to have meetings," she said.

"At all levels of authority - village, district, commune - they confirmed that

NGOs had to ask permission to meet, to move from one district to another, and then

to move from that area to Phnom Penh. And then when they return to their province

they are questioned.

"Recently in Sre Ambel district, Koh Kong province, NGO workers were prevented

by local police from meeting people who demonstrated regarding a land concession."

Such scrutiny is simply a means of controlling these associations, and the proposed

legislation would effectively serve to legalize these restrictions, she said.

"Now groups of people and some small NGOs are not able to register, they are

informal groups of people [and even now] the government tries to imprison activists,

for example, by charging them with disinformation," Pilorge said. "Under

the proposed NGO law such groups of people could be imprisoned simply for continuing

their activities without registering."

A new NGO law combined with another contentious draft law currently under discussion

- that on the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly - could serve as legislative pincers closing

in on NGOs' ability to operate independently, she said.

There are, however, some advantages that could come from an NGO law. It could set

out clear requirements for NGOs to obtain legal status - something they lack.

"At the moment NGOs do not have a formal 'legal personality' - they are not

recognized as fully legal entities," Clark said. "Hence they are not protected

by the law."

Moreover, an NGO law could accord NGOs tax-free status, allowing the government to

give tax breaks to companies that make donations to NGOs.

"The good thing is that Article 23 of the draft law makes donations to NGOs

tax-deductible," said Channarith. "This could encourage wealthy Khmers

to donate to NGOs; it could encourage a culture of philanthropy in Cambodia."

But this benefit is not necessarily dependent on the passage of an NGO law.

"It will require changes to the tax laws as well," Pilorge said. "I

don't think this proposed law is about [tax-free status or] making NGOs more accountable.

It is about selective control of critical NGOs - in particular the ones highlighting

land grabbing by senior government officials or powerful businessmen, especially

in this kind of environment."