The Constitutional Council of Cambodia on Wednesday deemed new legislation regulating the country’s non-governmental organizations to be in full compliance with the Constitution, rejecting all arguments—from the U.N. down to the NGOs themselves—that it flies in the face of the highest law of the land.
Lawmakers from the ruling CPP pushed the NGO law through the National Assembly and Senate last month amid boycotts by the opposition, which wants the legislation abandoned. The council’s unanimous decision Wednesday clears its way to the desk of King Norodom Sihamoni, whose signature will bring it into effect.
The law, the council said in a letter signed by its president, Ek Sam Ol, “is pronounced to comply with the Constitution.”
The letter added that the verdict of the council was “the final decision, which cannot be appealed.”
King Sihamoni, who abstains from all things political, is expected to sign the law imminently. Council spokesman Prum Nhean Vicheth said he expected the law to reach the king no later than today.
The law will require all NGOs and associations, save the smallest community groups, to register with the government and file annual reports on their finances and activities.
It also includes broad provisions that will allow ministries to shut down NGOs that fail to remain politically neutral or jeopardize Cambodian traditions. Critics fear the CPP will use the law to muzzle its critics, but also argue that it violates the Constitution, in particular the article that guarantees all citizens the right to form associations.
In a joint statement last week, local rights groups Adhoc and Licadho said the law would violate this article and five additional articles, covering the freedom of expression, political participation and other rights.
Licadho technical supervisor Am Sam Ath said he was deeply disappointed by the council’s decision.
“Both local and international organizations, even the E.U., repeatedly called for additional consultations before the law was passed, but the council still voted for it and said the law is constitutional,” he said.
Mr. Sam Ath said NGOs would continue to campaign against the law in hope of having it amended, and would carefully monitor its implementation.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay spent Wednesday morning with the council in a last-ditch effort to sway it against the law.
Contacted after the council’s decision, he said he would not comment on the vote’s faults or merits until after he had a chance to read the council’s letter and weigh the case it makes for the law.
But Mr. Chhay said he was surprised by the speed with which the council made its decision, particularly after hearing little dissent from its members when he argued in the morning that the law was unconstitutional. Only one of the nine members contested his case, he said, “but after I explained, he seemed to agree.”
“To hear that they already decided on the law, it’s hard for me to say anything,” he said. “For them to reject [my arguments] so quickly, it’s unacceptable.”
The council’s letter justifying its decision went into little depth or detail, mostly citing the more controversial articles of the law and the particular articles of the Constitution it believed they complied with.
It said the articles in the law requiring NGOs to register with the government were in compliance with the constitutional article giving citizens the right to form associations, and that others prescribing rules for foreign NGOs were consistent with another article that enshrines the neutrality of the military.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)