Donors Should Pressure Cambodia to Shelve NGO Draft Law: Rights Groups

By Joshua Lipes
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US First Lady Michelle Obama (top C) sits with Cambodian students and directors from an NGO during a roundtable discussion in Siem Reap province, March 21, 2015.
US First Lady Michelle Obama (top C) sits with Cambodian students and directors from an NGO during a roundtable discussion in Siem Reap province, March 21, 2015.

International donors and foreign governments should pressure Cambodia to shelve a draft law local nongovernmental organizations say would restrict their work in the country if implemented, according to human rights groups.

Cambodia’s Council of Ministers discussed the draft Law on the Association and the Non-Governmental Organization (LANGO) on May 29 and is scheduled to discuss it again on June 5 before sending the measure to the National Assembly, or parliament.

Repeated requests for the government to publicize the current draft of the law for consultation have been refused, and rights groups fear the proposal incorporates few amendments to an earlier draft, which was released in 2011, but later withdrawn following a storm of local and international criticism.

In a letter, New York-based Human Rights Watch and 10 other international human rights groups urged 44 foreign governments and the EU to press Cambodia not to “revive” the 2011 draft law because it would “impose unwarranted restrictions on the rights to freedom of association and expression.”

The May 29 letter, which was posted on Human Rights Watch’s website Monday, said the LANGO would also create legal grounds on which to arbitrarily close or deny registration to politically disfavored NGOs in Cambodia, including those employing human rights defenders.

“Donors and other governments should speak out strongly to protect the freedom of Cambodia’s organizations to continue their valuable work in poverty reduction, child protection, human rights, and other areas,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an accompanying statement Monday.

“They should use their influence to convince the Cambodian government to back off from this dangerous attempt to stymie freedom of association and expression in the country.”

In the letter, the rights groups noted that Prime Minister Hun Sen had “long expressed hostility towards independent NGOs, particularly those that criticize human rights violations,” and was pushing for the draft law’s approval without public consultation through the National Assembly, which is dominated by his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

But the groups asserted that “there is no need for a law in Cambodia specifically targeting NGOs,” as existing legislation already addresses legitimate government concerns about preventing criminal activity by independent organizations or their members.

“Cambodia needs legislative reform to protect basic human rights, not new legal tools for violating them,” Adams said.

“Foreign donors should promote such reform and speak out against regressive laws.”

Recent concerns

Last week’s letter echoed concerns raised recently by the international community over the LANGO’s problematic provisions, but which have been shrugged off by Cambodia’s government.

In May, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned a group of officials from the United Nations to end their criticism of the draft law and refrain from interfering in the country’s internal affairs following an op-ed they wrote slamming the government for proceeding on the draft law without consulting civil society.

The ministry also lashed out at outgoing U.S. Ambassador William Todd for criticism he made about the LANGO in a recent article, dismissing his comments as “extremely insolent.”

Last week, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers said it was “too late” to postpone submission of the LANGO to the National Assembly and suggested that NGOs pass any recommendations on the draft law to parliament.





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