Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday had a message for Cambodia’s NGOs about the highly contentious draft law that could soon govern their activities: “Don’t worry.”
Speaking at the opening of Chinese-funded National Road 41 – even as a US envoy in Phnom Penh was voicing doubts about the law’s very necessity – the premier assured civil society the law on associations and non-governmental organisations was for their own good.
“To the NGOs and the associations, please do not worry about the law. This law will protect you, this law will support you and [be] widely open for your activities … and I guarantee that this law is in accordance with the Constitution,” Hun Sen said.
The premier also seemingly closed the door to further discussions on the subject, despite repeated calls in recent weeks by local and international NGOs to undertake a serious consultation with civil society.
“The consultations have happened too many times already, and we paid strong attention to the recommendations,” he said.
The law’s latest draft, which was released in 2011, was met with widespread outcry by civil society due to concerns that its proposed mechanisms – including purportedly complex registration and stringent annual reporting processes – could muzzle activism and impose burdens on NGOs that will inhibit their ability to work in the country.
The Council of Ministers is scheduled to discuss it over the weekend.
In his speech, the prime minister again stuck to a consistent government theme: that one of the primary purposes of the forthcoming law is to monitor the NGOs’ funding sources, some of which could otherwise be international terrorist groups or organised crime syndicates.
Ny Chakrya, head of local rights group Adhoc’s human rights monitoring section, however, said that the prime minister’s explanation – and reassurances – will not suffice.
“If the law would be adopted while it is controversial, which it is, then the implementation of the law will not be effective and [will] violate human rights,” Chakrya said.
Scott Busby, US deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, yesterday joined in the chorus of draft law critics, offering what may have been the most explicit US criticism of the law yet, saying there is “little need” for such legislation in Cambodia.
“I urge the government to reconsider whether an NGO law is in fact needed at this time, as there are already Cambodian laws on counterterrorism and criminal activity, as well as a civil code, that address the concerns this proposed legislation is intended to address,” Busby said during a press conference at the US Embassy yesterday that concluded a two-day visit to Cambodia.
“If it is deemed that this legislation is indeed in the public interest, I urge the royal government to make the draft legislation available to members of civil society and to the public as soon as possible and before it is introduced in the National Assembly . . . and that the Cambodian people be afforded sufficient time for review and consultations on any legislation.”
Despite Hun Sen’s earlier assertion that there had been “enough consultations”, following a meeting yesterday with Busby, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong said that the government remains willing to open lines of communication with the public and civil society.
“After the draft law is sent to the National Assembly, there will be public discussions with NGOs before the draft is enacted. So I think it’s enough for NGOs to give ideas,” Namhong said, though NGOs have in the past criticised such public discussions of legislation as little more than window dressing.
The minister went on to admonish NGOs, saying that since they demand transparency from the government, they too should be candid about their operations.
“The NGOs themselves also need to be transparent. There is nothing to hide since they are working for Cambodian people,” he said.