Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-CAMBODIA: New Laws May Curb NGO Activity

Andrew Nette

PHNOM PENH, Dec 14 2008 (IPS) - Cambodia could be the latest Asian country to adopt tighter laws governing the activities of local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – a move many believe will put further pressure on the country’s already fragile democratic space.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen foreshadowed the move after the July national election in which his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was returned with a significantly increased majority.

In a five-hour speech late September, Hun Sen said the law was necessary to track the funding sources of NGOs, as “he feared terrorists might settle in the kingdom under the guise of NGOs”.

The Prime Minister, who has had a fractious relationship with some local and international NGOs, also said: “NGOs are out of control…they insult the government just to ensure their financial survival.”

He said the law is one of three priority pieces of legislation for the government’s current five-year term, along with a new penal code and a much-anticipated anti-corruption law delayed since the 1990s.

Officials from the interior ministry, which has carriage for the law, have claimed it will address ‘serious irregularities’ such as NGOs setting up to exploit tax loopholes and their involvement in party politics, although no concrete evidence has been provided to support either claim.

Debate over the proposed law is muted due to the fact its content remains unknown.

Little information has been made public, unlike the government’s previous attempts to introduce laws governing NGOs, when drafts were either released for comment or leaked to the media.

And although interior ministry officials have committed to public consultation, they have not said when the proposed legislation will be made available.

Secretary of State of the interior ministry, Nut Saan, and Under Secretary of State, Sieng Lapresse, both declined to be interviewed by IPS on the proposed legislation.

The Cambodian government last attempted to introduce a law regulating NGO activities in 2005.

That law banned NGOs and local organisations from supporting ‘activities for any political interests’ and providing ‘non-material, material financial means, and human resources in support of any political party’, but did not define what either meant.

It contained more comprehensive registration and reporting procedures, and sanctions for failure to comply, including fines, jail sentences and suspension.

Critics of the 2005 law were also concerned the interior ministry, a body they claim is not neutral, would have final say over the process of NGO registration and suspension.

“At this moment in time no,” said Borithy Lun, executive director of Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), the country’s main NGO umbrella body, about whether the law is needed.

“Any NGO operating in Cambodia is already registered with the Ministry of Interior if it is a local one and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs if it is foreign. That is sufficient for the government in terms of knowing what they do and who they are.”

“Here, with the weak judiciary and lawlessness that we have, we don’t see any benefit from an NGO law,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the prominent local human rights organisation Licadho.

Further, NGOs say they are accountable to international donors who audit and evaluate their work and insist on regular reporting.

“All NGOs operating in Cambodia also report regularly to line ministries they work with or directly to the Council of Development for Cambodia,” said Borithy.

CCC administers a self-regulating code of conduct, which he said is recognised internationally as best practice.

In operation since 2004, Borithy would not comment on how many of CCC’s several hundred members had signed on, but stressed it set high reporting and governance benchmarks which not all local NGOs had the capacity to implement at this time.

“If there is a need to have such a law we need it to be designed in a framework of open dialogue so that we can express our views on this important piece of legislation because this will surely impact on our work and those views should be legitimately reflected in the law,” he said.

‘We agree that terrorism is an important issue,” said Thun Saray, president of local rights group, ADHOC. “But the government should deal with it by other laws, not through an NGO law.”

“They don’t care about financial management or governance structure what they want to do is control the voice of NGOs,” he said, echoing the opinion of many in the sector.

Many believe the law will squeeze democratic space in Cambodia, a trend some say is already underway post the July election, which left the opposition weakened and the ruling CPP in control of both houses of parliament.

“After the election it does appear that the space is narrowing,” said one observer who declined to be named. “There is the expectation civil society should be a check and balance but this is under retreat.”

Cambodia dropped 41 places on the 2008 Paris-based Reporters Without Borders press freedom index for 2008 compared to the previous year. This was based on factors such as murders, imprisonment and physical attacks on journalists, threats and censorship.

A recent Amnesty International report found there had been a pattern of increasing attacks on human rights workers and local community activists.

An October 2004 report on the status of human rights defenders by the special representative of the UN Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani, highlighted a trend in governments using NGO laws to restrict human rights organisations and their staff. They did this using many of the same mechanisms in the Cambodian government’s proposed 2005 law, including increased registration procedures, denial of registration and suspension.

“In the Cambodia context any NGO law – regardless of its particular content – poses a threat to the work of human rights defenders and other NGOs,” stated a 2006 Licadho briefing paper on the issue.

The paper cited evidence that China, Thailand and Malaysia had all used registration requirements to restrict the activities of organisations critical of the government.

Similar legislation planned in Nepal and Bangladesh was withdrawn due to donor and NGO opposition.

“While human rights defenders are most at risk because of their role in continually criticising government actions, the objectives of all NGOs and development agents – both foreign and domestic – can be compromised.”

“People need to step back and look at the big picture,” said Pilorge. “It is not necessarily only going to affect certain NGOs. It could affect them all.”

There are further concerns the law could have a chilling effect on Cambodia’s much larger informal community sector.

“Much of the work to reach out to communities depends on networks and community associations,” said Borithy.

“It would be difficult for them to comply with the law when and if it comes into force. There is the possibility that the reach to the beneficiary will be much harder.”

The NGO law is part of a broader attempt by the Cambodian government to reconstitute its relationship with the Western aid community.

Private investment is increasing and a looming resource boom in oil, gas and minerals could see millions flowing to into state coffers.

China is now one of Cambodia’s most important aid donors. At the annual donor conference in December, China pledged 257 US dollars million in aid, up from 91.5 million dollars last year, out of a total of nearly one billion pledged at the meeting.

As Prime Minister Hun Sen misses no chance to point out, Chinese aid comes with none of the good governance and other conditionalities imposed by Western donors.

All these developments have given Cambodian greater power to negotiate the terms of future aid flows and make traditional donors nervous about being marginalised.

In a departure from previous attempts to introduce new laws governing NGOs and associations, sources say a number of donors are believed to support the law and could be willing to provide technical assistance to help draft it.

“So far we have not received a concrete request for support, but we have indicated to the government that we would be very willing to consider lending support if it is required, in close cooperation with other development partners on this issue,” Rafael Dochao Moreno, head of the EU mission in Phnom Penh told IPS.

“Whether or not Cambodia should have an NGO law is up to Cambodia to decide. In principle we have no objection against the extension of the legal framework … The content of the law is of course of vital importance.”

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