Prime Minister Hun Sen said the government will wait until 2014 if that is what it takes to achieve consensus on the highly criticised draft law on associations and NGOs.
Speaking at a high school graduation yesterday, the premier said Cambodia had already been waiting for 33 years for the necessary law and to wait another two or three years would hardly make any difference.
“If we have not agreed by 2012, there will be no issue, we will wait until 2013; if not 2013, we will wait until 2014,” Hun Sen said. “We have been in discussions for almost 20 years, so we will not be too early.”
The draft NGO law aims to establish a framework for the registration of NGOs and associations and to safeguard the “rights and freedoms” of the organisations, according to the fourth draft of the law compiled by the Ministry of Interior.
The Council of Ministers sent the draft law back to the Ministry of Interior to re-draft earlier this year. While the fourth draft is markedly different from the third draft, civil society organisations in Cambodia and abroad are still not satisified with the law, particularly a provision that effectively makes registration compulsory.
Despite heated public outcry over the law and a call by civil society for its abandonment, the premier said in no uncertain terms there would be a law.
“We must have this law. It is too unreasonable [to request the law be abandoned],” he said. “The government pays attention to all activities of organisations and considers this an important part of a developing country.”
Hun Sen added that the law must “be accepted by all sides” to pass and rejected criticisms that the government was dictatorial or that the National Assembly was merely a rubber stamp for the ruling party.
“Issuing this law will facilitate the humanitarian work of organisations that are willing to import materials to hand out to Cambodians, because the import tax for these organisations is exempt,” he said.
The premier’s address was welcomed by Cambodian legal experts and some civil society organisations.
“Civil society has demanded more discussion time from the government, and this is a better point to hear the delay in passing the law,” Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project said.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, applauded Hun Sen’s stance.
“This is a positive result opening the discussion for longer to avoid criticism after the law goes into effect,” he said.
At an open forum with civil society representatives last week, the Ministry of Interior welcomed written and verbal feedback on the fourth draft but made no firm commitments to adopt feedback into a fifth draft of the contentious law.