Does Cambodia Really Need a New NGO Law?

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Does Cambodia Really Need a New NGO Law?

Critics contend the new law is a repressive legal tool that violates basic rights.

Cambodia’s National Assembly unanimously passed the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) despite the fierce opposition of local civil society groups, the boycott of opposition lawmakers, and the strong international lobby against the measure.

The government said the law is necessary to prevent international terrorist groups from using Cambodia as a base for their operations. But critics contend it is a repressive legal tool that will undermine citizens’ constitutional right of political participation. LANGO was first proposed in 2011 but it was shelved after Cambodian NGOs criticized it.

Opponents of LANGO claim that the government failed to properly consult various stakeholders about the bill. They warned that LANGO will affect not only NGOs but also every local group, community association, and grassroots organization in the country. The provision on mandatory registration will criminalize the activities of groups that fail or refuse to register with the government. Further, registered local associations must commit to being politically neutral or else they will face penalties and lose government accreditation.

Human rights groups decried other provisions in the LANGO for being draconian and onerous. Article 8 empowers authorities to deny the application of a group that engages in activities that “jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of the Cambodian national society.” Article 9 expands the ban on all unregistered domestic NGOs and associations, while Article 12 requires local NGOs with short term international projects to seek approval first from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. At present, NGOs are only ordered to notify the Ministry about their activities with international partners. Article 30 gives discretionary powers to the government minister to remove the registration of domestic NGOs for activities listed under Article 8 mentioned above.

Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, echoed the criticism of Cambodian activists about the negative impact of LANGO on the right to political participation.

“Any group of people coming together to pursue a common cause, be it a human rights issue or cleaning up their neighborhood, is an association. And under this draft, every single one of them will be a criminal organization if they do not register,” Maina Kiai wrote.

After the passage of LANGO at the National Assembly, 38 civil society organizations signed a statement urging the Senate to reject the measure. Licadho, a local human rights group, asserted that “the real purpose of this law is to exercise control over groups of citizens who want to speak out.”

“Civil society is absolutely vital for democracy and legitimizes the democratic institutions we rely on. If LANGO passes, this will be wiped out in an instant, replaced by a bleak environment of unchallenged governance and its myriad consequences,” it added.

In recent months, several international bodies have expressed their concern about the “pernicious” provisions of LANGO, and they joined Cambodian activists in urging the government to review the draft. The European Parliament warned that Cambodia may lose $600-700 million in development projects annually once the law has been passed. It could be referring to the various financial regulations imposed by LANGO on international NGOs. The EU is Cambodia’s largest partner in terms of development assistance.

In response, Interior Minister Sar Kheng reiterated that Cambodia is adhering to international standards in passing the LANGO: “I cannot understand why some other foreign countries are also against this law. We have prepared this law based on their laws. Why can they have [such a law] and Cambodia cannot?”

Meanwhile, lawmaker Hun Many, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, is confident that LANGO “will help increase cooperation with the government.”

As the Senate prepares to deliberate the LANGO, opposition to the bill is expected to intensify across the country.