Opposition lawmakers in Cambodia’s Senate said Thursday that they would boycott an upcoming vote in the upper house of parliament on a draft law that regulates nongovernmental organizations working in the country if senators failed to amend the legislation.
The Senate’s Legislation Commission is reviewing the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) following its unanimous approval by 68 ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) representatives in the lower house on Monday. Fifty-five lawmakers from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) boycotted the vote in the lower house.
Hong Sun Hour, a senator from the Sam Rainsy Party, said opposition party members would boycott any Senate debate on the draft law unless upper house lawmakers amended it first.
“We have discussed it and realized that this law will restrict NGOs’ rights,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“We must listen to the NGOs’ recommendations,” Hong Sun Hour said, adding that he expected the relevant committees of the Senate – known as commissions – to consider the civic groups’ suggestions.
But Hong Sun Hour said he doubted that CPP senators would adopt any of the opposition party’s recommendations about the draft law. The CPP holds 46 of the Senate’s 61 seats.
Violation of rights
NGOs and rights groups say the draft law violates their rights to freedom of assembly and expression and is out of sync with the country’s constitution and international human rights conventions. They also have complained about parliament excluding them from discussions on the draft law.
The lower house held a public consultation open to NGOs last week, but the groups said the four-hour session did not give them a sufficient amount of time to discuss their concerns about what they consider to be restrictive legislation.
Senator Ouk Bun Chhoeun, a CPP member who is chairman of the Legislation Commission and the Senate’s permanent committee member, said the Senate would not organize any public debate on the draft law.
He also said senators would examine the draft law carefully following a call by a United Nations human rights official on Wednesday for Cambodia’s upper house to reject the legislation.
Maina Kiai, the U.N’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said the draft law “unequivocally threatens the very existence of a free and independent civil society in Cambodia.”
“Should the draft law be adopted, any group advocating for human rights, basic freedoms and good governance can be shut down and criminalized,” he said in a printed statement issued Wednesday. “It will ultimately have a disastrous impact on Cambodian citizens’ democratic participation in furthering the development of their country.”
Critics have been particularly perturbed that the legislation would require the 5,000 domestic and international NGOs that work in the developing country to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and shut downs.
It also would let authorities de-register NGOs if they are not “politically neutral” and deny registrations on vague grounds that the groups have endangered the country’s security and stability or jeopardized national security or Cambodian culture.
‘We will examine it’
In response to the U.N’s statement, Ouk Bun Chhoeun said, “After the Senate commission’s study, we will submit it [the draft law] to the Senate’s general assembly. We will examine it carefully, so we will know what we will do after our examination.” The commission has not yet met, he added.
The European Union also issued a statement on Wednesday, saying that the Cambodian parliament failed to consider important concerns about the legislation, which “has the potential to considerably restrict the activity of NGOs.”
“Full respect of the constitutional provisions concerning pluralism and freedom of association and expression must be upheld," the statement said.
On Tuesday, a group of 38 domestic NGOs also had issued a statement calling on the Senate to reject the draft law
“In voting for LANGO, the ruling party has silenced the free voice of Cambodians,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the rights group Licadho, in the statement. “The government’s decision to force through LANGO will be devastating for all civil society and is clearly intended as a tool to suppress dissent and establish total control over citizens before the next elections.”
Reported by Yeang Socheameta for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.