The Interior Ministry tentatively accepted most of the changes nongovernment groups have asked the government to make to a draft NGO law during a breakthrough meeting last week, NGOs said yesterday.
Most critically, the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia’s Lun Borithy said the ministry agreed to exclude community-based groups —small associations with no official structure—from the draft. Ministry officials either could not be reached yesterday or declined comment.
Since getting hold of the draft last month, NGOs have complained about vague language that appeared to tie together everyone from the largest international operation to the smallest community group, sometimes nothing more than an occasional conclave among neighboring farmers. NGOs feared that the smallest of them could not meet the law’s registration and annual reporting demands, cutting the country’s civil society off at its roots.
Led by the CCC, NGOs followed up a Jan 10 workshop with the government with a list of their recommended changes.
Though a second, smaller workshop they held with the Interior Ministry Friday did not quite constitute the joint working group NGOs hoped would keep meeting regularly, CCC executive director Lun Borithy called the meeting “helpful.”
By the end, he said, “about 80 percent of the recommendations that we asked for were taken on board.”
He said the only recommendations not taken up in at least some form involved those parts of the law covering international groups, something they will have to take up with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As for local groups, NGOs fretted most about the draft’s definition of “associations.” Strictly read, it could cover a group of any size that meets for nothing more than to discuss its member’s interests. Though often relied on to carry out the bulk of their fieldwork, NGOs and some of the associations themselves said many lacked the technical skill to file the registration forms the draft law calls for, replete with charters and details about governing boards.
Mr Borithy said the Interior Ministry indicated that the smallest of these groups, or community-based groups, would not fall under the law’s purview. But just what the ministry thinks a community-based group still remains to be seen.
Mr Borithy said the NGOs generally considered them “any small organization operating within the community that does not have a defining structure to operate.”
He said the ministry neither accepted nor rejected the idea.
“Ministry of Interior officials were sympathetic to our explanation,” he said, “so it is a point for discussion, not a rejection.”
But with no sign of any more joint meetings with the ministry to come, he said the rest of that discussion would be taking place without the NGOs.
Now, he said, “the ministry needs to come up with a proper definition.”
Though the ministry did not agree to voluntary registration, or a tiered process that placed the least demand on the smallest groups, he said officials did agree to give groups an extra two months to file their annual reports and to audit them only if financial irregularities were reported.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Projects, said yesterday that he also left the meeting encouraged but said the ministry was not the only one to concede.
The current draft, for example, says nothing about how NGOs can appeal if registration forms are rejected. Mr Sam Oeun said some wanted the right to take their appeals straight to the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal, while the ministry wanted them to start with the lower courts. Though more skeptical of the lower courts’ independence, he said, the NGOs agreed.
“So it is compromise,” he said. “It does not mean [accepted] 100 percent.”
Mr Borithy also cautioned that nothing had been promised.
“It was a discussion,” he said of Friday’s meeting. “There is no guarantee that this will be fully incorporated into a second draft.”
He said he hoped to see a new draft of the law within a few weeks.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)