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CAMBODIA: New law restricts legitimate activities of civil society groups

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licadho_en.gifFORUM-ASIA member in Cambodia, LICADHO, has released a statement on the Cambodian government's intention to pass a new law which may restrict the legitimate activities of civil society groups. The statement is attached below.

As you may be aware, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated in September that the new government intends to adopt – as a priority – a law to regulate non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In common with many other Cambodian civil society organizations, we have strong reservations about the need for such a law at present, and feel that there are many more urgent matters that should be on government's agenda.

Based on the Cambodian context, and on international experience, we fear that such a law would be used primarily to control and limit the independence of civil society organizations – including not only NGOs but also Community-Based Organizations (CBOs), and groups such as student and media associations.

In developed countries with independent institutions and rule of law, it is common for there to be some regulation of the non-profit sector. This can be positive to the independence of civil society organizations, for example by ensuring a legal basis for their activities, providing protections against unwarranted government interference, and ensuring that tax relief is applied appropriately.

In Cambodia, however, the situation is very different. The rule of law is very weak, the judicial and legislative branches have a well-documented history of control by the executive, and indeed the only institutions in society that are truly independent from government are certain NGOs, associations and other civil society groups. Authorities have often displayed intolerance for the work of NGOs, CBOs, independent associations and groups such as unions – especially those who advocate on rule of law and human rights issues, or provide assistance to victims of State abuses.

The law has often been abused to intimidate NGO leaders, trade unionists and, increasingly, grassroots activists representing their communities in land and other natural resource disputes.
The Cambodian government has long wanted a Law on Associations and NGOs (commonly referred to as an "NGO Law"), and to this end has produced various drafts since at least 1996.

These drafts have been condemned as being "draconian", and have included restrictions on funding (one draft saying that foreign funding for local NGOs must be channeled through the government, and another that they could receive no foreign assistance at all); complex registration requirements that would be very onerous for smaller organizations in particular, and that would provide legal means to delay or deny registration; the criminalization of unregistered associations (contrary to the Constitution and international human rights law); and a ban on conducting activities for undefined "political interests", which could be used to punish those who defend or advocate against the persecution of political dissidents.

Internationally, the growing use of such NGO Laws by authoritarian governments to control civil society activities is well-established.

I am taking the liberty of enclosing a short briefing paper that summarizes the situation in some other countries with recent experience of restrictive NGO Laws. In Russia, for instance, an NGO Law passed in 2006 has been used to intimidate and even close down local organizations critical of government policy, while torturous registration procedures have forced international organizations ranging from Human Rights Watch to Médecins Sans Frontières to suspend their operations.

An NGO Law currently being considered by the Ethiopian parliament threatens to "wreck" civil society, according to Amnesty International. And numerous Asian countries that, like Cambodia, lack independent judiciaries and other institutions, have also suffered recently under repressive regulation of civil society.

Not only do we feel that an NGO Law in Cambodia is likely to be similarly misused, but we also believe that there are many more pressing issues for Cambodia at this time, including the passing of the long-awaited anti-corruption law and other key legislation, and much-needed judicial reforms, including to the Supreme Council of Magistracy and the Constitutional Council.

We respectfully ask that, in the interests of promoting and protecting the ability of civil society organizations to fulfill their crucial role in the development of Cambodia, your embassy raise the issue of the NGO Law with the Royal Government.

In particular, we urge you to encourage the government to defer its efforts to develop and pass such a law until such time as Cambodia has an independent judiciary and other institutions capable of ensuring that it cannot be misused. The recent experience of countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh shows that it is possible, with a concerted effort from a civil society and its international supporters, to prevent or postpone such harmful legislation.