Cambodia recently drafted a new law that will regulate non-governmental organizations and associations. The government says the law will protect the sector. NGOs disagree and see the freedom of civil society in danger.
Cambodia has numerous farmers' groups
Cambodia has more than 3,000 non-governmental organizations as well as numerous associations ranging from farmers' groups to business associations. They perform an important function in a country that continues to rebuild after decades of conflict that ended in the late 1990s. Local and international NGOs have programs in sectors such as education, health, agriculture and the environment.
The government says the law is necessary to protect NGOs and associations, and says it has consulted with civil society on the law’s provisions.
But NGOs say the government hasn’t listened to their suggestions. Hundreds have complained publicly in recent weeks that this is a bad law.
Donors are also worried
The United States says the law is unnecessary, and believes it could threaten rights that are protected under Cambodia’s constitution.
The 27-nation European Union bloc is also concerned since the law would affect how civil society operates, and would therefore affect the EU’s development cooperation with Cambodia.
Around 80 percent of Cambodia's 14 million people are farmers - many rely on NGOs
The first problem with the draft, according to Naly Pilorge, director at local rights group Licadho, is that registration is mandatory, which means organizations that do not register will be operating illegally. Furthermore, she says, they are "burdensome registration requirements; I mean many, many self-help groups, communities are illiterate, and based in the provinces." She sees a third problem in the "ambiguity" of the law: there are "a lot of unclear passages in this law so the decisions can be subjective, can be arbitrary to accept or refuse, and there is no appeal system."
Every NGO must register
That means if the government turns down an application to register, there is no way under the law to appeal that decision.
Pilorge says the main issue is the requirement that every NGO and association must register. Unless that is changed, she says, there is little point in amending anything else. "In most developed countries where you have NGO laws or charity laws or non-profit laws, first of all it’s voluntary and you choose to register because you want tax or legal protection, so it’s entirely voluntary."
"Government must protect NGOs"
Government spokesman Phay Siphan says Cambodia’s constitution stipulates that the government must protect NGOs. He says that is one purpose of the law. "The government is trying to initiate the NGO law in the interests of the organizations - to protect the NGO as an organization. NGOs have to be protected by the government."
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan, left, says the law will protect NGOs
Another is to preclude NGOs abusing their non-profit status and getting involved in political work, which the government does not like, though Phay Siphan says that NGOs are welcome to suggest improvements to the government.
NGOs would reply that they tried to do that, but the government refused to listen. The government says the bigger principle is to create transparency and accountability in civil society.
Perhaps, but the response shows its partners in civil society are unconvinced. Many worry that should this draft become law, the government could use it as a repressive measure to shut down any organization it does not like.
Author: Robert Carmichael
Editor: Sarah Berning