Draft NGO Law Released Ahead of Consultation

Associations and NGOs face significant regulatory oversight from the government when registering and managing their organizations in Cambodia under the new draft law covering the actions of civil society groups.

Under the draft law, which civil society and the UN human rights office in Cambodia have previously described as being unnecessary, the government would also have the power to examine the financial records and properties of any association or NGO—at any time.

Released to civil society organizations over the past two days, the draft law is likely to be much scrutinized by members of civil society over the weeks leading up to their participation in a Jan 10 consultative workshop being organized by the Interior Ministry.

Nuth Sa An, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, said yesterday that the workshop had been postponed from the end of the month to allow NGOs more time to study the draft law. “We set Dec 28 as the date of the meeting, but since many NGOs asked for a delay, we now are to hold the workshop on Jan 10, 2011,” Mr Sa An said.

NGOs contacted yesterday were reticent to comment specifically about the contents of the draft law, saying they needed more time to analyze its comments before passing their judgment.

But there are areas within the law that are likely to attract attention, including provisions on the process for registering associations and domestic organizations with the Interior Ministry and foreign NGOs with the Foreign Ministry.

For associations—defined as organizations formed by at least 21 founding members serving its members’ interests—and domestic NGOs, a comprehensive organizational charter must be attached as part of their registration documents.

The charter must include the sources of the association’s finances and properties, the duties of individual members of staff and the methods of hiring and firing both general staff and the organization’s leaders.

Under the law, foreign NGOs will be forced to enter into an “aid project or program agreement” with leaders from the appropriate government ministry before they apply to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Foreign Ministry.

Foreign NGOs will also be required to collaborate with relevant government institutions when preparing project plans, implementing programs and evaluating results. Their MoU with the government will be valid for a minimum of one year and a maximum of three.

Another area of the draft law that is likely to attract discussion at the Jan 10 meeting are provisions that make it a requirement for associations and NGOs to inform the government whenever they rotate or dismiss their staff.

Under Article 48, the draft law also provides the Ministry of Economy and Finance and the National Audit Authority with the power to examine the resources and properties of any association or NGO, without specifying any restrictions on the practice.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak declined to talk at length about the draft law yesterday. “The draft aims to control the civil society, making the civil society under the law,” he said, before hanging up on a reporter.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said he had not seen a copy of the law, and therefore could not comment on the Foreign Ministry’s role in signing memorandums with foreign NGOs.

Naly Pilorge, director of human rights group Licadho, said NGOs welcomed the government’s decision to delay their consultation workshop until Jan 10.

Ms Pilorge, while maintaining her organization’s viewpoint that existing laws already sufficiently cover NGOs’ actions, said the extra time would allow civil society to identify both possible benefits and concerns from the draft law.

She said it was vital that the “100s or even 1,000s” of associations and NGOs located away from Phnom Penh be given the chance to be properly informed about the content of the draft law.

Thun Saray, director of rights group Adhoc, said he was slightly disappointed the government had not allowed a full month to scrutinize the law before the consultation workshop, but said his primary concern was that the government would not take heed of civil society’s ideas.

“Good consulting is accepting our NGOs’ ideas. Our concern is that they only take small idea from us, not the big idea,” he said.

Cooperation Committee for Cambodia Executive Director Lun Borithy said in a text message yesterday that he was not willing to comment on the law until NGOs had agreed on a position paper next week.

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