Civil society groups in Cambodia finally received a glimpse of the third draft of the law on associations and non-governmental organisations (NGO law) on 29 July.
Cambodia’s citizens had previously only been able to speculate on what the draft law might contain, and how it might ultimately be enforced. The international community and civil society in Cambodia have criticised previous versions of the law as having a restrictive effect on civil society, effectively weakening citizen accountability for poverty-focused efforts.
Co-operation between the Cambodian government and civil society has long been central to the country’s evolution from a war-torn country to a peaceful, vibrant, developing one. While government and civil society organisations have often had different opinions, they have held constructive discussions and co-operated.
However, the latest draft of the NGO law puts this relationship at risk by severely restricting freedom of expression and potentially reducing the voice of many organisations that represent and protect the marginalised: farmers, labour unionists, land activists, students, sex workers, and the disabled.
From the perspective of civil society, the third draft of the NGO law has not changed significantly from the second and first draft. The NGO law still fails to respect fundamental rights, including freedom of association and freedom of expression. In its present form, the draft law will have a severe, negative impact on domestic NGOs and associations as well as foreign NGOs, and will dramatically hinder the delivery of development aid to Cambodia. The result: valuable public services will be curtailed, development at the community level will be stunted, and poverty and corruption will increase. Moreover, the draft law will affect government programs. Major concerns about the current draft include:
• Registration is mandatory and complex, rather than voluntary and simple.
• No safeguards to ensure that denials of registration or involuntary dissolutions are imposed objectively.
• The law does not include a period for an appeal process when a request for registration is denied.
• Key terms in the law are undefined, and many sections are vague.
Ambiguity as well as the complex registration process and reporting requirements will add to the burden of government agencies responsible for administering new regulations, especially the ministry of the interior and the ministry of foreign affairs and international co-operation.
Civil society groups understand the government’s need for a legal framework to ensure the stability and security of the country, and to facilitate the effective delivery of development and humanitarian aid. However, such a framework also needs to give citizens the freedom to engage in law-abiding activities without undue restrictions or burdens. To improve the law, the government should:
• Eliminate mandatory registration except for domestic NGOs and associations that wish to take advantage of the benefits of registration.
• Allow the NGO and association registration process to “be truly accessible, with clear, speedy, apolitical, and corruption-free procedures”.
• Clearly outline a transparent process for the evaluation of registration applications. Any government decision to deny registration should be in writing and take effect over a reasonable and manageable time frame. The appeal process should be explicit and quick. It should also coincide clearly with objective legal standards for the purposes of review.
• Exclude or simplify reporting procedures for small, provincial, community-based development organisations and alliances in articles 44, 46 and 48.
• Incorporate a glossary explanatory notes for every article in the draft.
Cambodia’s past development success – social and economic – would never have happened if the opportunities to freely organise and express opinions had been curtailed. It is, therefore, not only in the best interest of Cambodia’s citizens but also to the advantage of the national government to make registration optional for domestic NGOs and associations, to make it simple and to define terms. Successful development of societies worldwide goes hand in hand with increased openness.