Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on Thursday warned a group of officials from the United Nations to end their criticism of a proposed law nongovernmental organizations say would restrict their work in the country if implemented, according to a ministry spokesman.
Hor Namhong met with the heads of four U.N. agencies after they recently expressed concerns over the Draft Law on the Association and the Non-Governmental Organization (LANGO) and told them to refrain from interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesman Kuy Kuong told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“We reminded them about their obligations [under the U.N. Charter], but whether they adhere to [the rules] or not is up to them,” Kuy Kuong said.
“We needed to remind them about our constitution and the memorandum of understanding they signed with the Cambodian government [allowing them to operate in the country],” he said.
Present at Thursday’s meeting at the ministry were the heads of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNOHCHR) Wan-Hea Lee, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Rana Flowers, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Marc Derveeuw, and U.N. Women Wenny Kusuma.
The meeting followed a May 18 letter from the MOFA accusing the four U.N. representatives of acting in violation of the U.N. Charter by publicly criticizing the NGO draft law in a Phnom Penh Post op-ed entitled “The Importance of Trust” and carried by the paper last week.
In the op-ed, the four slammed the government for proceeding on the LANGO—which was recently submitted to the Council of Ministers and is due to be enacted this month—without consulting hundreds of civil society organizations who earlier this month asked to be included in the process.
They also questioned why the latest version of the LANGO had not been released to the public and urged greater transparency, adding that Cambodia is obligated to allow broader participation in the country’s legislative process under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In its letter response, the MOFA noted that Cambodia’s constitution contains “no single word calling for consultation with NGO and civil society before submitting a draft law to the parliament,” and told the representatives to “perform your activities by respecting the UN Charter and your specific mandate.”
It called on the representatives to submit their ideas for improving the country’s legislation for consideration, instead of publishing criticism in the media, and justified the LANGO as a means to promote “transparency and order” in the work of NGOs and civil society groups around the nation.
In comments posted on the websites of their respective agencies in the aftermath of Thursday’s meeting, the four U.N. representatives pledged to continue their support for dialogue between the government and civil society as the NGO law moves forward.
Ambassador weighs in
Thursday’s meeting also followed a May 20 letter from the MOFA admonishing outgoing U.S. Ambassador William Todd for comments he made about the LANGO in a recent article, excerpts of which were carried by the Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday.
In the article, Todd said that while he had encountered a growing number of U.S. companies looking to do business in the country, “to take advantage of this interest, Cambodia must project an image that attracts foreign investment, technology and human resources.”
“Cambodia’s image is affected by the draft NGO law,” Todd said, adding that he would “join the call to action” to the international community to urge Cambodia’s government to release a copy of the proposed legislation and conduct meaningful consultations with civil society.
“As the Cambodian government considers the next steps, it is important to realize that the world is watching,” the ambassador wrote in the article, which received praise from local rights groups.
The MOFA responded by referring Todd to the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations, which stipulates that ambassadors “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of [the receiving] State,” and dismissing his comments as “extremely insolent.”
Pushing law through
Last month, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said the LANGO could be passed in May, despite a lack of consultation with civil society representatives since an earlier draft was released to a storm of criticism in 2011.
Earlier this week, government spokesman Phay Siphan insisted the most recent draft would be made available to NGOs, but said it must first be reviewed by the Council of Ministers and signed off on by Hun Sen.
In April, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the Cambodian government to drop plans to revive the LANGO, which it said “severely restricts the activities of nongovernmental organizations and associations,” and to open the draft law to a consultation process with NGOs.
“While governments have a legitimate regulatory interest in providing benefits to organizations that become legal entities and preventing criminal activity,” the group said in a statement.
“But such regulations cannot be used as a cover to undermine rights to freedom of association, expression, and assembly, which are protected under the Cambodian constitution and international treaties to which Cambodia is a party.”
Reported by Yeang Socheameta for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.