Ten international organizations including Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and Global Witness have urged dozens of foreign ministers to consider freezing aid to Cambodia if the government passes the current draft of its proposed NGO law.
In a letter sent Wednesday to 36 foreign ministers from the EU, US and Japan, among others, the groups call the draft law a threat to the future of development in the country.
“As written, the current draft law empowers the government to violate fundamental rights and does little to protect state or social interests,” the letter states.
“We urge you to…make it clear to the [Royal Government of Cambodia] that if the law is adopted in its current form your government will reassess your bilateral assistance and will also urge all agencies providing multilateral assistance, including the United Nations and international financial institutions, to reassess their assistance,” it continues.
Currently at the Council of Ministers, and expected to be sent imminently to the National Assembly for approval, the Law on Associations and Non-Government Organizations has been an unusually controversial piece of proposed legislation.
The government insists the law—which will require nongovernmental groups to register and file annual financial reports, among other procedures—is necessary to regulate a rapidly growing sector. But NGOs, independent observers, and some donor countries, have slammed the drafts for their overly restrictive terms and lack of appeal process, calling it a blatant move to impede civil society.
Nuth Sa An, Secretary of State at the Interior Ministry, said on Friday that he had not heard of the letter, but said criticisms were premature, given that the law hadn’t yet passed.
“Everything is still processing and it hasn’t been passed yet. Why are these NGOs trying to already show how unhappy they are with the law?”
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, questioned whether the NGO law was the business of other nations.
“Everyone pressure us—you have to do this to do that,” said Mr Siphan. “We work for the people, we don’t work for the rulers. They have to respect the sovereignty of Cambodia.”
During an April donor meeting, mission director for the US Agency for International Development, Flynn Fuller, said the US would consider freezing aid if the law was adopted unchanged. Few of the criticisms of the law made earlier this year have been addressed in the current form of the draft.
Spokesman for the US Embassy, Sean McIntosh, said Friday that the embassy has been involved in discussions with a range of groups concerning the law’s potential impact.
“We urge the RGC to consider the views expressed by donors and civil society, and refrain from passing any new law that restricts rather than enhances the important role of civil society in Cambodia,” he said.
As of Friday evening, there had not been any replies from the foreign ministers who were sent the letter, said George Boden, a campaigner at Global Witness.
“With the exception of the US, the donor response to date has been underwhelming. There is still an opportunity to influence the bill but donors need to act now to make a difference,” he said.
In addition to asking foreign governments to exert pressure on Cambodia, the letter highlights the recent suspension of land rights group STT, as well as the censuring of NGO Forum and Bridges Across Borders Cambodia by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calling them “a harbinger of the future” if the law goes through as drafted.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said that the cases were perfect examples of why the government needed to be stopped from passing a law allowing them the freedom to shut down any NGO at will.
“STT is a telling indicator of how the Cambodian government will proceed against NGOs if it gets the sort of draconian law that it wants,” he said. “Even in Cambodia, hypocrisy and double standards can only go so far—and it’s critical now to ensure that the government does not have carte blanche to close down any group or association that raises uncomfortable issues and then make up a reason why after the fact.”
(Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng)