Meeting Over NGO Law On Hold as PM’s Deadline Passes

A deadline set by Prime Minister Hun Sen to finalize a controversial draft NGO law by the end of May will be missed, as a government spokesman said discussions were put on hold while the Interior Minister is abroad.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Friday that talks to approve the NGO law, which will also have to be passed by the National Assembly, have been delayed until next week as Interior Minister Sar Kheng is currently in Russia. 

“Today, we didn’t have the meeting at the Council of Ministers to discuss [the NGO law] since the Interior Minister [Sar Kheng] has gone out of country for a mission abroad,” said Mr. Siphan.

“So we are waiting for him. He is scheduled to come back to the country on Sunday. So it might be next Friday that the NGO law will be discussed at a Council of Ministers meeting,” he added.

The law—the most recent public draft of which was released in 2011—has proven highly contentious, with fears that the ruling CPP could utilize various articles to shut down groups critical of the government.

A statement dated May 26 from the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), an umbrella organization of NGOs, raises a number of concerns about the draft law and calls on the government to “conduct broad based, meaningful and transparent dialogue with different stakeholders.”

Among the CCC’s concerns is an article that would allow only Cambodian nationals to start NGOs and civil society groups. The report also highlights the draft law’s vague wording in articles that would allow the government to reject applications for new NGOs.

“The absence of a clear, limited list of objective grounds for denial could have a disproportionate impact on groups that engage in advocacy, support unpopular causes, or are critical of government,” the report says.

Speaking at a press conference in Phnom Penh on Friday, CCC president Soeung Saroeun said that if passed without consultation with civil society, the law would highlight the limitations of democracy in Cambodia.

“In 2011, we held a consultation and discussion on the first draft law and as of now we have not received officially the latest draft of this law and we have no explanation from the government in relation to this latest version of the law,” Mr. Saroeun said.

“If this law is adopted and passed, democracy in Cambodia [will be] more limited,” he added.

Caroline McCausland, ActionAid Cambodia’s country director, raised particular concern over an article that places a 25 percent cap on administrative expenses of a foreign NGO, which includes employees’ salaries.

“A clear role of NGOs in Cambodia is to offer human resource development—skills, expertise—which may otherwise not be available. The days of international NGOs just simply giving aid money is not the way we work anymore,” Ms. McCausland said.

“Ninety-nine percent of our staff are Cambodian citizens so it would impact very heavily on the employment of Cambodians in the NGO sector,” she said.

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