Cambodia’s NGO Laws

Cambodia is revising its laws on NGOs and Associations. During a meeting on December 16th the Committee for Cambodia (CCC) circulated the fourth draft of the revised laws. NGO representatives who attended the CCC meeting yesterday said the draft was “unacceptable to civil society” and a” restrictive piece of legislation”.

Media reports point out that one of the key concerns of NGOs – appeal rights – has not been addressed by Cambodia’s government. The fourth draft of the NGO laws creates two separate registration procedures, one for domestic associations and NGOs and one for foreign associations and NGOs. Permission from the government is not necessary  to set up domestic organizations and NGOs, but without completing the official registration process they do not have “legal capacity”.

According to The Phnom Penh Post that “effectively means despite government promises that mandatory registration would be dropped in the fourth generation of the laws, domestic associations and organizations would-be unable to hire staff, have bank accounts, rent or buy office space, or enter into other contracts unless they register with the government”.

The CCC meeting also highlighted a “worrying new provision directed toward international NGOs and associations”. In Article 17 of the new draft it states that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may end the Memorandum of Understanding with a foreign association or NGO “in the event that a foreign association or NGO conducts activities which jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, unity, culture, customs, and traditions of the Cambodian national society”. There are no appeal rights associated with this new restrictive provision.

In January 2011 the US raised concerns about Cambodia’s NGO policy and asked the Cambodian government if they were making laws that place limits on NGOs operating in their country. The US had “serious concerns about the NGO law as drafted and strongly opposed the enactment of any law that would constrain the legitimate activities of NGOs”. The US stated that they “believed a strong and free civil society was vital to strengthening democratic institutions, enhancing economic and humanitarian well-being, and promoting a sustainable economy. In Cambodia, as in many other countries, NGOs and other civil society organizations make critical contributions in these areas”.

In September 2011 the UN special rapporteur on Cambodia called on the Cambodian government to change its draft law on NGOs, ” a source of much anxiety among civil society groups”. They “urged Cambodian authorities to carefully review the current draft and expressed concern that “it would hamper the legitimate work of NGOs in the country”. Domestic and international human rights groups strongly criticized the draft, which they said threatened to impose severe restrictions on civil society’s right to freedom of association and expression.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen first announced the government’s desire to enact laws governing NGOs and associations in September 2008. At that time there was suspicion about the intent of the proposed laws. The primary fear was that they would be used to stifle NGOs critical of the government (especially NGOs working in human rights, land grabbing issues) and limit/control activities of NGOs in general and further restrict the rights of freedom of assembly and speech of NGOs.

Some critics of the laws argue that there should be no NGO law whatsoever. Many ask for significant revisions in the proposed fourth revision of the laws. Critical flaws and perceived problems include overly burdensome reporting requirements, ill-defined criteria potentially allowing the government undue discretionary powers to require mandatory registration that may violate the right to freedom of assembly.

The NGO community continues to give feedback to the Cambodian government through meetings and reports.  So far the government’s revisions to the laws are minor compared to the overhaul demanded by the NGO community.

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