Cambodia is expected to push ahead with a controversial law closely regulating nongovernmental organizations despite concerns by human rights groups that the legislation will severely restrict NGOs from operating freely within the country.
The Cambodian government has made amendments to a second draft of the law based on feedback from NGOs but has not made them public.
NGOs say they fear the third draft does not incorporate significant changes proposed in consultations with the government over the previous version of the law.
Critics have called the proposed law unreasonable because it would ban unregistered voluntary organizations and allow the government to oversee the operations of both foreign and domestic NGOs.
Oxfam, a U.K.-based human rights group that joined the initiative, said in a statement that the Cambodian government must abandon the proposed law.
“The government says they want to control extreme activities with this law, but there are already laws on the books that meet that priority,” said Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness for Oxfam America.
Oxfam asked instead that the Cambodian government work together with civil society groups on a solution agreeable to both sides, noting that the exact impact of the law is yet unknown.
“The Cambodian government should take a step back and clearly define exactly what problem they are trying to solve. Then they should engage in a participatory process with their citizens to ensure an enabling environment for civil society, jointly defining the solution,” Adams said.
He said NGOs are critical to Cambodia’s development in the areas of health, education, food security, and human rights.
“Under this proposed law, there is genuine fear that progress will be rolled back and citizens will lose out. As drafted, the law makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Cambodian citizens to organize and address their own needs.”
Adams cited a complex registration process for NGOs under the proposed law, saying organizations deemed unacceptable have no recourse for appeal.
He warned that implementation of the law could “turn back the clock for existing development programs.”
“Farmer groups would be unable to assemble and press for resource rights such as land or water, and advocacy groups raising awareness of basic human rights in the areas of mining and illegal land eviction, workers rights, and state corruption would all be at risk,” he said.
The Cambodian Ministry of Interior has framed the third draft of the law after consultations with the NGO community, which insisted that their concerns were not addressed.
When the government announced last month it was working on the third draft , the ministry’s secretary of state, Nouth Sa An, said he felt the government had “resolved the problem already,” referring to NGO community’s concerns, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
Some 600 organizations around the world, calling themselves the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, issued a joint statement earlier this month, calling the Law on Associations and NGOs “unacceptable” in its current form.
‘Engage’ with citizens
Phil Robertson, deputy director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch Asia division, said that Cambodian authorities must allow Cambodia’s civil society organizations to view the new version of the law to see whether it incorporates their recommendations.
Robertson said the government has shown a “continual lack of transparency” throughout the drafting process.
“What we’ve seen all along has been a failure by the Cambodian government to take the concerns of civil society groups seriously. It seems to me that there is a predetermined outcome that the Cambodian government wants,” Robertson said.
“There needs to be a real clean break from that sort of ‘hide the law, hide the provisions’ attitude of the government where they try to write something in a closed room and jam it on through,” he said.
Robertson said that if the government plans to push through the third draft without a consultation period, “then that is a very telling indication of the intent of the government—to draft a law … to restrict civil society and to essentially go after civil society groups that don’t agree with government policies.”
He said that the second draft of the law included a number of provisions that “would make it extremely difficult for organizations to operate” and which provide “wide discretions to Cambodian government officials to declare organizations illegal on fairly ill-defined grounds.”
Robertson called on governments that provide development assistance to Cambodia to join the push for greater transparency and cooperation in the drafting process.
“The future of democratic sustainable development in Cambodia is being placed at risk … and so the development partners in the international community have a duty now to really make their views known to the Cambodia government in clear and uncompromising terms,” he said.
The draft law, which aims to regulate the country’s estimated 3,000 organizations operating outside of government control, has also faced criticism from the U.N. and from Washington.
Surya Subedi, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, visited the country in February and met the heads of several civil society organizations to discuss their concerns about operating in the country.
During his visit, Subedi encouraged the Cambodian government to consult with NGOs on the drafting of the law and bring it into conformity to international norms.
In January a U.S. State Department spokesman said the United States has “serious concerns about the law as drafted and strongly opposes the enactment of any law that would constrain the legitimate activities of NGOs.”
The State Department also urged Phnom Penh to consult with NGOs on the substance of the draft law and to “reconsider whether such a measure is even necessary.”
Cambodia’s government has long had an antagonistic relationship with human rights groups and NGOs operating in the country.
Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he wanted the U.N. human rights office in Cambodia closed and its representative, Christophe Peschoux, sacked.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.