Excessive regulation of NGOs is threatening to undermine the efforts of aid agencies in Cambodia, warns the new head of a leading German development foundation in Phnom Penh.
Compulsory registration of NGOs may harm civil society in Cambodia
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other NGOs say Cambodia's draft law regulating associations and non-governmental organizations should be abandoned on the grounds that it will undermine rather than promote civil society in the country. Dozens of international organizations working in Cambodia have called on international donors to make strong public and private statements opposing the law. Deutsche Welle spoke to the new head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Phnom Penh, Manfred Hornung, about the implications of the legislation.
Deutsche Welle: You've been living in Cambodia for several years now. Some rights groups say that there's been a pattern of repression in the country over the last decade. What do you feel is the current situation in the country as far as democracy, human rights and civil society are concerned?
Manfred Hornung: There has been a very obvious trend in several sectors to restrict political and societal freedom on a large scale. A number of laws have been passed, among them the laws on NGOs and the passage of the criminal procedure law which was supposed to regulate certain sectors but turned out to be very restrictive in many ways.
A new law that Cambodia is set to put in practice this month will make it even harder for NGOs and foreign organizations to get registered. What does it mean for civil society in Cambodia if unregistered NGOs are prohibited from operating?
Informal groups are taking over roles and services that are really vital for Cambodian society. These groups are now being forced to register under very stringent conditions. Many individuals forming these groups are illiterate and have no connection to government structures, which will put a huge burden on civil life in Cambodia. The main problem is that no civil society life will be possible without registration, which is unconstitutional and in practical terms will curtail a lot of freedom in Cambodian society.
Will it also impact on foreign NGOs such as the Böll foundation and the work they do?
Manfred Hornung warns regulations will harm development work
It's not a major problem for us as such, what I'm worried about is the future of our counterparts and partners. We work very closely with informal groups, students, rural communities in the north east that are now being forced to register. It will be very interesting for us to see if these groups become illegal because they don't have the capacity or might be frightened to register.
What are the biggest challenges in the areas that the Böll foundation wants to tackle in Cambodia?
We focus on gender democracy; we want to encourage women to become more pro-active and active in the political process of the country, and we are also working on resource governance issues with a focus on the north east. We try to combine these two issues, to give women the opportunity to become active in the resource governance sector in political institutions of the country. This is a very controversial area, as there is a lot of land grabbing happening at the moment.
You mention land-grabbing, how difficult or dangerous is it to work under these kinds of conditions?
Again I'd like to focus on our partners, on the people in the countryside. The allocation of land, the granting of land concessions is very opaque and it goes to the core of the livelihoods of the people. And this is why it is so important that these people who work on these issues and topics for the benefit of their communities are allowed to remain active and stay in the process. This [NGO] law will kill a lot of the initiatives to protect the communities in these areas.
Half of the national budget of Cambodia comes from development assistance. Do you think donors could influence the government not to implement this law?
I think we are talking here about responsibilities. Clearly the international community has funded a lot of projects targeted towards building up civil society after the tragic period in Cambodia's history. A lot of effort and money has been poured in. And with that, I think the international donor community should take this responsibility to try its upmost to find a law that serves the people in the countryside and helps them to remain active in this societal area. Influencing the government is outside the control of the donor community.
So they shouldn't pull out of Cambodia and stop financing?
You shouldn't pull out, but staying also means taking responsibilities, it means you work in specific sectors, if you see a negative trend or one that is not in line with your vision and mission, you need to intervene, you need to work in the political sphere. I think political dialogue needs to continue, real dialogue, where you get to the core of these issues.
How hopeful are you that the conditions for democracy, human rights, and an active civil society in Cambodia are going to improve?
There are many variables in that question. It is about political development, future of the government in general. At the moment I have the feeling that many of these organisations try to anticipate things and then take action accordingly, and these actions are not in line with their visions or missions or mandates. And this should not happen. I see it as a process, you work and if you stay true to yourself and your partners, they will realise and cherish that.
Interview: Sarah Steffen/tkw
Editor: Guy Degen