Civil society organizations (“CSOs”) across Cambodia and beyond are urging the government to stop rushing to adopt a secret new draft Law on Associations and Non Governmental Organizations (“LANGO”), which threatens to seriously undermine fundamental rights in the country, and hold public consultations.
The last draft of the law was seen in 2011, lying dormant until May when Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that it would be passed that month. Refusing to release the new draft, speculation as to its content and potential impact has been growing steadily. On 5 June 2015 the Council of Ministers approved the new text, and a leaked version has been widely distributed. Speaking in the Phnom Penh Post, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said if passed in its current form the law would be “an unmitigated disaster for civil society.”
The draft makes no distinction between community based organizations and other kinds of association, and in theory could be interpreted broadly to apply to any type of community group or meeting. All NGOs and associations will be subject to mandatory registration requirements and will be prohibited from engaging in any activities if not registered. These restrictive provisions lead to several questions as to exactly how the registration process will work, and in theory would give the authorities broad powers to restrict the legitimate activities of a wide range of organizations.
The draft also increases the burden of reporting requirements, requiring that NGOs provide the government with copies of all of their reports, proposals and financial agreements submitted to donors. Such documents may contain sensitive information that should remain private. For example, details about human rights defenders who might fear retaliation from the authorities as a result of their legitimate activism.
CCHR has joined a solidarity effort of local and international CSOs urging the government to “Stop and Consult” on the LANGO and other laws that could have a negative impact on human rights. Chak Sopheap, CCHR’s Executive Director also joined other Cambodian CSO representatives on an advocacy trip to Washington DC, meeting officials from congress, the White House and Department of State, to promote a more open legislative process in Cambodia to compliment local advocacy efforts with different development partners and UN agencies.
As former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated in 2012 “A dynamic and autonomous civil society able to operate freely, is one of the fundamental checks and balances necessary for building a healthy society, and one of the key bridges between governments and their people.” However, Cambodia is not the only place where the government seems to be intent on going against this advice.
NGO laws in other countries
In Russia, NGOs who receive foreign funding or engage in “political” activity are forced to register as “foreign agents,” equating CSOs with “spies” or “traitors,” an atmosphere that has encouraged a wave of intrusive inspections and led to a number of NGOs being shut down. Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Socialist Republic, is reportedly in the process of introducing similar legislation.
In an ongoing struggle with Greenpeace India, the Indian government froze the organization’s bank accounts in April 2014 amid accusations that its environmental campaigns were hurting India’s economy, and on 6 June 2015, a foreign staff member was prevented form entering the country even though he had a valid .
In addition to examples of restrictive NGO laws, there are others that help facilitate the work of civil society. In countries such as Belgium, France and the United Kingdom, registration is not mandatory but is usual for organizations that wish to become legal entities. The laws in these countries then give detailed definitions and guidelines for registration, dissolution and suspension. Details such as these are lacking in Cambodia’s LANGO.
During his visit to Cambodia on 2 June 2015, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Scott Busby, spoke to Foreign Affairs Minister, Hor Namhong, to propose the reconsideration of the LANGO, even questioning whether such a law was necessary given the existence of laws that already address issues such as terrorism and criminal activity. This opinion is shared by Human Rights Watch, which has called for the law to be withdrawn.
Time for Action
Cambodian and international organizations are working together to try and steer Cambodia on a positive path, and ensure that civil society will not be silenced. We are advocating for a more transparent, open and inclusive process for this legislation and others, and are again calling for the release of the official draft. To follow the campaign and be part of the conversation, follow Stop and Consult on Facebook or Twitter and watch out for out for more information from CCHR and other CSOs in the coming days.
Dani Esquivel, CCHR International Intern