Government Pushes Ahead With NGO Law

After nearly two years of silence on its draft NGO Law, the Ministry of Interior on Sunday said it was aiming to have the highly contentious piece of legislation ready for the Council of Ministers early next year and voted on by July.

Meas Sarim, deputy director-general of the Interior Ministry’s local administration department, said they also hope to consult once again with NGOs about the bill before it reaches the Council of Ministers.

Asked when the bill would reach the Council, Mr. Sarim replied, “Probably 2014, in the first quarter of the year, and in the first half of the year we will pass the law.”

The Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations would require NGOs to register with the government in order to have legal standing, set minimum conditions for who can form such groups and require them to file reports on their activities and finances each year.

However, NGOs fear the government will use the bill’s vague wording to clamp down on groups it perceives to be too critical of the ruling CPP, and few draft laws have attracted as much international criticism in recent years.

In early 2011, the country director of the USAID warned that the U.S. might refuse to increase its aid to Cambodia if the government passed the bill as it stood at the time. Later that year, the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, urged the government not to pass it.

The U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said the law risked “undermining” human rights in Cambodia, as it extended to the government broad discretion to reject an NGO’s application, and lacked an appeal process.

Amid intense international pressure, and with critical commune and national elections on the horizon, Prime Minister Hun Sen in late 2011 said the government was in no rush to pass the law and would wait until 2014.

On Sunday, Mr. Sarim of the Interior Ministry said the government still needed the law to ensure that NGOs followed relevant rules and regulations and to keep track of the thousands of nongovernmental groups at work in the country.

“Previously some NGOs did not follow the Interior Ministry’s regulations,” he said. “Some NGOs were operating but did not inform the ministry of their activities. If the ministry doesn’t know of their activity, the ministry cannot manage them.”

Naly Pilorge, director of the human rights NGO Licadho, said Cambodia already had enough laws to regulate nongovernment groups and had no practical need for another.

With the opposition CNRP still refusing to take its 55 seats at the National Assembly in protest over July’s national election, she said it was also the wrong time for parliament to table such legislation.

“In light of existing legislation to provide legal and tax regulations on NGOs, such as the 2011 civil code, and the absence of elected opposition MPs [members of parliament] in the National Assembly, we believe any attempt to draft and pass an Association and NGO law would be another attempt by the ruling party to eliminate and stifle selective civil society groups,” she said, especially those working on human rights, evictions and other sensitive issues.

“There is enough legislation now to ensure accountability and transparency of associations and NGOs without introducing another law which aims to control and restrict rather than enable and protect,” she added.

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