New Draft of NGO Law ‘Much Worse’ Than the Last, CCC Says

An NGO umbrella group says it has seen a new, leaked copy of a controversial draft law that aims to regulate the country’s hundreds of non-government organizations—and that the latest version marks a significant step backward.

Soeung Saroeun, executive director of the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia (CCC), which counts dozens of the country’s NGOs as members, said the new draft is the version the Council of Ministers approved—with a few changes—on Friday, clearing its way to the National Assembly.

“Overall, I think it’s much worse than the version we had before,” he said Monday.

Mr. Saroeun said the CCC could not share a copy without potentially revealing the source of the leak.

On the positive side, he said, it removes one contentious article that would have limited to 25 percent the share of their budgets that foreign NGOs could spend on overheads, a ceiling they have argued could seriously hamper their work.

But Mr. Saroeun said the article’s removal was outweighed by other changes, including a provision that would bar anyone from registering as a founding NGO officer if he or she has led an NGO that the government has previously dissolved.

The main reasons the last public draft gives for dissolving a local NGO are for failing to report staff changes or file annual activity and finance reports with the government. It would also let the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shut down any foreign NGO working in the country deemed to be jeopardizing the “customs and traditions of the Cambodian national society,” vague language NGOs fear the government could misuse to target its critics.

Under the old draft, NGOs would have had to register with the government only if they wanted legal standing, but otherwise would apparently have been allowed to keep working. Under the new draft, according to the CCC, NGOs would have to register or shut down.

“It’s clearer, but it’s more harmful,” Mr. Saroeun said.

And unlike the earlier draft, the latest version insists that all NGOs be politically “neutral,” but does not provide a definition or clear guidelines, adding another term that has the CCC worried.

“It’s a very vague term that can very easily be manipulated,” Mr. Saroeun said.

He said the new draft also drops any mention of “community-based organizations,” highly localized and relatively informal groups typically formed to tackle the immediate concerns of a particular village or commune. Mr. Saroeun said it was now unclear whether such groups would be excluded from the law or treated like other, larger NGOs—replete with strict registration and reporting duties they may not be able to carry out.

Without making it clear that the smallest groups are exempt, he said, “it’s easy for the local authorities to misinterpret, so this can be a bad thing.”

He said the new draft would also require NGOs to hand over to the government the reports demanded of them by their donors, forcing them to divulge information that in some cases should be kept confidential. And like the older draft, it still lacks a clear list of reasons the government could use to reject a registration application.

NGOs say the law flies in the face of their constitutional right to freedom of association. Despite a few improvements, Mr. Saroeun said, “this law is still very harmful to society.”

The government says it needs the law to make sure the hundreds of NGOs in Cambodia are not misbehaving. Lately, it has said that its main fear is of al-Qaida and like-minded groups taking root in the country under the cover of humanitarian work. Critics of the law have dismissed the argument as a red herring.

After the Council of Ministers approved the draft on Friday, council spokesman Phay Siphan said the Interior Ministry would make the few changes that the cabinet wanted before it headed to the National Assembly, where the ruling CPP has the simple majority it needs to pass it without the opposition’s support.

The opposition CNRP has joined the draft’s critics in urging the government not to vote on the law until holding more meetings with NGOs to hear their concerns.

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