In recent weeks, we witnessed a revived discussion of the controversial draft law on NGOs and associations after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that this piece of legislation would be passed in the near future.
The draft law, which was first introduced in 2010, went through four revisions and was subsequently put on hold for two years following the successful advocacy effort of the civil society groups calling for more comprehensive consultations.
The analysis on the latest draft, which was released to the public in December 2011, indicates that a number of positive changes have been introduced, but many issues and concerns remain unsolved.
Since then, no more public consultation was conducted and nobody knows what the final draft that the government is rushing to enact looks like. So far, more than 340 NGOs working in Cambodia have endorsed a joint statement expressing concerns on the restriction that the law may impose on civil society organisations (CSOs) and requested the government release the final draft law and resume the consultation process.
Because the final draft law has not been made public, it is difficult to discuss the specific issues in the law. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest the following general principles to serve as the foundation for future consultations and dialogues.
The fundamental rights and freedoms of CSOs must be ensured
The law should protect the rights and freedoms of all local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) in the country and ensure that they are allowed to establish and operate freely without any restrictions.
As promoted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, all individuals within the state’s territory should be allowed to form associations and NGOs.
The registration of NGOs and associations should be voluntary and the process must be made simple, straightforward and transparent. The registration requirements have to be clearly stated and the decision to grant or not to grant the legal status shall not be politically motivated.
CSOs should be empowered to meet social and community needs
NGOs and other civil society organisations play a crucial role in Cambodia’s development. They employ around 50,000 people and contribute between $600 million to $700 million annually to improve health, education, environment, human rights and democracy.
CSOs work directly with the communities, and represent the voice of the poor and marginalised people. They know the community’s problems and contribute to filling the gaps in government services to address those issues. It is estimated that between 20 per cent to 30 per cent of Cambodia’s population benefits directly from NGO activities.
It is thus important that the law recognise the contribution of NGOs and CBOs and create an enabling environment for them to continue to serve the community and the society at large. For this to happen, all state-imposed constraints and hurdles such as excessive bureaucracy, unfair and unjustified regulations that translate into penal and pecuniary sanctions must be removed.
Trust and cooperation between the government and NGO sectors should be strengthened
Given their expertise in a wide range of areas and their experience working at the grassroots level, NGOs are an indispensible partner of the government in national development. This partnership will be effective and long lasting only when it is built on mutual trust and understanding.
The proposed law, therefore, should create a framework for meaningful NGO-government cooperation. The 2011 draft law lays out the roles and responsibilities of NGOs and CBOs, but fails to include the obligations of the local and national government in ensuring effective collaboration.
It is critical that, if the draft law is to be passed, it must specify how the NGO sector and the government can work together for national interests. Frequent, open and honest communication and dialogue is the basis for this mutual responsibility approach.
Integrity and good governance of NGOs is promoted
It is fair to say that if NGOs are to demand good governance from the government, they too have to uphold transparency and accountability principles. The prime minister’s example of the NGO being the channel of funding for terrorists may be a bit extreme, but it is a legitimate concern.
Good governance in the NGO sector would entail creating a mechanism to hold NGOs accountable to their donors and the people they serve. Regular information disclosure on its activities and source of funding, adopting a fair and transparent management and having a proper check and balance system are some good practices of NGO good governance.
That said, the law requiring NGOs to embrace good governance should never be used to place restrictions on the exercise of rights and freedoms other than those prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety, or public order.
There is no doubt that the collective work of civil society has improved the lives of millions of Cambodians and has contributed significantly to poverty reduction and human development. With regional integration as the backdrop, a strong, vibrant and accountable civil society is necessary to help the Cambodia achieve its objectives set in the new National Strategic Development Plan 2014-2018. Therefore, the proposed law on NGOs and associations should protect the rights and freedoms of the civil society groups, help develop an effective partnership with them and empower them to do their work for the benefit of Cambodian people.
Heng Pheakdey is the deputy director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia and the founder of the Center for Policy Research and Dialogue of Enrich Institute. The view expressed here is that of the author and may not reflect the position of the organisations he represents.