Secret Draft of NGO Law Arrives at Council of Ministers

The latest draft of a controversial law to regulate the work of the country’s robust NGO sector has reached the Council of Ministers, precluding any more public meetings on the proposed legislation, at least until it arrives at the National Assembly.

NGOs say the law would violate their freedom-of-association rights and fear that the ruling CPP could use specific articles and vaguely worded sections to go after groups critical of the government. However, they have not seen a draft since the Interior Ministry invited them to a workshop in 2011 and have urged the ministry to meet with them again before the current version goes any further.

On Thursday, however, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the draft had already left the Interior Ministry and was officially in the hands of the Council of Ministers. He said he confirmed its arrival with the council’s administration office.

“They told me [it is] here and [under] review,” he said.

Mr. Siphan said the Council of Ministers was unlikely to discuss the law at its weekly meeting today, but could do so next week in order to meet Prime Minister Hun Sen’s goal of having it passed by the end of the month.

Either way, Mr. Siphan said, NGOs were unlikely to see the draft while it was with the Council of Ministers.

“I don’t think so, that we’ll meet with the NGOs,” he said. “Now it belongs to the government. When it reaches the National Assembly, then the people [will] have the chance to review that one.”

At a press conference on Monday, NGOs said that more than 300 non-government groups and associations had signed on to a petition asking the government to keep meeting with them about the law before approving it.

Among their main worries with the last draft they saw is that it lacks a clear and concise list of reasons the government could refuse to register an NGO, and would let the Foreign Affairs Ministry shut down any international NGOs that “harm the national security, national unity, culture, customs and traditions.”

Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, the CNRP’s head of public affairs, said her party would not support the NGO law when it reached the National Assembly if it looked like the version the Interior Ministry released in 2011.

“We will not support anything that is opposed to the role and work of the NGOs,” she said. “If the law is going to hinder the work of the NGOs, the CNRP cannot support it…because they have a role to play, and they have played a very big role in the development of the country.”

If and when the law reaches the National Assembly, Ms. Sochua said, she hoped that whichever commission it landed with takes the time to consult NGOs and—if necessary—postpone a vote.

“This touches the entire population, because the NGOs and associations are all over the place,” she said.

Recent estimates place the number of active NGOs at 1,000, with the groups spending upward of $600 million per year on helping the country develop.

Mr. Hun Sen, however, appears to be in a hurry to more closely regulate the sector.

Last month, after having shelved the draft in 2012, the prime minister said he wanted to see the law passed by the end of May, with or without the CNRP’s support. With its majority of seats in the National Assembly, the CPP can pass the law on its own.

“Regardless of who supports it, the voice of parliament, which is 50 plus one, will be enough for approval,” the prime minister said in April.

At the time, Mr. Hun Sen said the country needed the law to make sure that terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida do not use NGOs as cover to funnel their money into the country for criminal ends. NGOs say the country already has the laws it needs to pursue criminal financing and that the proposed financial reporting rules in the draft law would not help.

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