Draft legislation to regulate Cambodia’s non-government sector may suppress civil society and give the government too much freedom to disallow organizations, hitting hardest the informal associations that drive most grassroots activism, local NGOs warned yesterday.v
The law, unveiled this month for the first time after several years in the drafting process, is to be discussed on Jan 10 at an Interior Ministry workshop and has provoked concern among NGOs who fear it could lead to political controls on much of the development sector. Both Licadho and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights yesterday called sections of the draft unconstitutional.
“The level of intrusion that this law hints at is very worrying,” said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant for Licadho, pointing in particular to a provision that sets the minimum size of community-based associations at 21 members.
“It would basically make it illegal for Cambodians to assemble if they are not registered,” he said. “It simply goes against the Constitution.”
Regardless of size, “the right to assemble is enshrined in the Constitution,” agreed CCHR president Ou Virak, who called the 21-member limit arbitrary.
Among other provisions, the draft would require NGOs to register with the government, draw up detailed charters, submit annual activity reports, open their financial books on demand and promptly report all staff rotations and dismissals.
Interior Ministry officials declined to go into detail about the draft law yesterday.
“The draft has not been passed yet,” Secretary of State Nuth Sa An said. “Let’s wait and talk at the meeting.”
Police Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, the ministry’s spokesman, also declined to comment on the NGOs’ specific concerns, instead accusing them of holding to a double standard.
“I think NGOs always teach the villagers about the law and tell them to respect the law. But when we create a law for the NGOs, the NGOs don’t agree to stay under the law and they don’t want the law,” he said.
Mr Virak expressed concern that the new rules would take their greatest toll on the smaller NGOs and especially the community-based associations, often little more than groups of local farmers of fisherman who come together to feed their concerns to a larger network.
“For bigger NGOs, we do these things anyway,” he said of the draft’s many rules on recordkeeping and reporting to the government. “But for smaller NGOs it’s going to be more difficult for them and this could limit their activity.”
By their very nature, he said, those associations play a vital role in the country’s civic life that many NGOs based in Phnom Penh cannot.
“They live within the community. So in terms of monitoring they know more,” he said. “They’re much stronger advocates because they live there and they know all the actors in the community.”
But in its brief assessment of the draft published Friday, CCHR said the law would burden those very groups the most, “suggesting that the [government’s] principal concern in passing the law is not Phnom Penh-based international and domestic [NGOs] but popular movements and grassroots politics.”
In its review, CCHR also said the draft law’s failure to spell out rules for rejecting NGO registration applications gave the government too much leeway to reject “undesirable” NGOs on vague administrative grounds and failed to provide for a right of appeal beyond the Interior Ministry.
But the review also praised the draft for not applying an outright ban on political activity among NGOs, as an older version of the law had, and allowing civil action, and not solely criminal prosecutions, to be brought against them.
“It’s not the worst law and it’s not the best law,” Mr Virak said, comparing the draft with the NGOs laws of other countries. “It’s somewhere in the middle.”