Lawmaker Opens Door to Talks on NGO Law

A spokesman for the National Assembly on Monday said civil society groups may still have a chance to meet with lawmakers over a controversial draft law that aims to regulate the country’s multimillion dollar NGO sector before it goes to a vote.

Such a meeting, if it happens, could satisfy calls for a more inclusive drafting process, one of the key requests from local and international organizations working in the country, who fear that the law could be misused to silence some of the government’s most vocal critics.

The government has not had public meetings about the law since 2011, shortly before Prime Minister Hun Sen put it on hold. Mr. Hun Sen resurrected the draft law last month, and said he wanted it passed by the end of May. The Council of Ministers is expected to decide whether to send it to the National Assembly on Friday.

On Monday, Assembly spokesman and CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun said a meeting with NGOs could happen—and that he personally supported the idea.

“We can ask civil society to join,” he said. “For me, I think there should be participation from civil society and NGOs so they can give their opinions and so we can listen.

“If they give good opinions, we will think about them and add them to the law. But civil society must understand that they have the right to say what they want, but they cannot force the state to follow what they want.”

Mr. Vun said that once the draft reached the Assembly, it would likely be sent to three or four parliamentary commissions, one of which could host a meeting with the NGOs before the law is put to a vote.

He said those commissions were likely to include the one assigned to deal with foreign affairs, which he chairs, and another dealing with human rights, headed by the opposition CNRP, which has joined the NGOs in their critique of the proposed legislation.

It remains to be seen, however, whether NGOs will get to see an up-to-date version of the draft law before or during such a meeting.

As of late 2011, the law required NGOs and associations, except for the very smallest of them, to register with the government and file annual reports on their activities and finances. NGOs worry that the government could use vaguely worded sections to shut down any group it doesn’t like, with little explanation or recourse to appeal.

They say the law, as it was drafted four years ago, would violate the constitutional right to the freedom of association. Besides more meetings, NGOs are urging the government to make public its most up-to-date version.

With the draft’s pending approval, both the U.N. and U.S. have recently joined critics in calling for the current draft’s release and more public consultation before a vote, drawing swift rebuke from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Despite his willingness to meet with NGOs, Mr. Vun backed up the ministry in chastising U.S. Ambassador William Todd for a recent opinion article in which he raised concerns about the draft law.

“Ambassador William Todd should implement and respect the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations,” Mr. Vun said. “If he doesn’t know about the Vienna Convention, he should not work as an ambassador.”

The Interior Ministry, which has led the drafting process, also issued a statement Monday, reiterating the need for an NGO law. The ministry said the law would promote cooperation between NGOs and the government and that it has been cleared by the state’s lawyers.

“Study and research has shown that the creation of associations and non-government organizations is the citizen’s right, but they also have obligations in order to exercise that right,” the statement says.

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