Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong has sent a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defending the government’s decision to draft a law that more strictly regulates NGOs and associations operating in Cambodia, a government official said yesterday.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said that Mr Namhong had sent the letter, dated Jan 13, in response to a Jan 7 letter sent by Ms Clinton to the government that raised concerns about the necessity of such a law.
“Recently, the deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong sent a letter in response to the letter by Excellency Hillary Clinton,” Mr Kuong said.
Mr Kuong declined to provide a copy of Mr Namhong’s letter to Ms Clinton. Instead he provided sections from it by telephone.
Reading from Mr Namhong’s letter, Mr Kuong said, “The [NGO] law is established for the smooth, orderly and transparent operation of the NGOs and civil society in Cambodia.”
“Acknowledging the important contribution of the NGOs and civil society to social economic development of Cambodia the Royal Government has allowed hundreds of them to operate with much liberty throughout the country,” Mr Kuong continued.
“However, with such a huge number of associations and NGOs dealing in numerous fields it is necessary that there is a law to better coordinate their activities and efficiency and also ensure transparency and prevent acts of extremism which are sometimes hidden under the cover of NGOs, civil society and associations.”
Mr Kuong added that Mr Namhong’s letter also pointed out that the draft law had been subject to “a broad consultation process” and said that it would help expand civil liberties through enhancing cooperation between “non-state actors” and the government.
A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh would not confirm whether the US State Department had contacted Cambodia last week.
“The US strongly believes that a strong, independent, and diverse civil society community is indispensable to democracy and to Cambodia’s continued development,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail.
Last week the US Embassy said it would “strongly urge the royal government of Cambodia to reconsider whether the draft NGO law is in fact necessary and if so, to adopt and implement a law consistent with a commitment to expand, rather than restrict, the freedom for civil society organizations to operate.”
On Monday, NGOs and civil society groups convened at a government-led workshop in Phnom Penh to discuss concerns they had with the draft law. During the session the government opened up the door for a possible redrafting of some sections within the draft law.
Since the draft law was released on Dec 15, NGOs have expressed serious concern about it. Some smaller NGOs have raised fears that they do not have the institutional capacity to deal with requirements in the draft law, which asks groups to provide the government with photographs and personal profiles of NGO workers as well as with the sources of finances and properties.
Under the draft 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.
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.
A statement released yesterday by a coalition of NGOs and civil society members thanked the government for giving them an opportunity to express their concerns about the draft law.
But the statement, which was signed by Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, MEDiCAM, The NGO Forum on Cambodia and Cambodia Human Rights Action Committee, also expressed hope that the government would consider recommendations for the creation of a joint technical working group to further discuss the contents of the draft law.
“As we are awaiting decision, we strongly hope that the Royal Government will respond positively in the following days to provide opportunities for additional consultations on this very important legislation,” the statement said.
NGOs are also recommending that registration should be voluntary for associations and small groups should be exempt.