Cambodia’s troubling Associations & NGO law

Siena AnstisCivil society organizations in Cambodia, including LICADHO, continue to fight against the imminent passage of a repressive Associations & NGO Law.  The first draft of the law, released in December 2010, was condemned by the international community “as an assault on Cambodians’ right to freedom of association, assembly and expression.”

The second draft of the law, released on March 24, is no improvement. Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO, describes some of the fundamental difficulties posed by the law in her recent article in the Guardian (UK):

Among other things, the law requires all NGOs and associations to comply with burdensome registration procedures, and outlaws those that don’t. Meanwhile, it gives authorities unbounded discretion to approve registration applications, with few substantive guidelines to steer their decisions. There is no appeals process if registration is denied.

The draft is also sloppy – one example being its apparently unlimited scope. It’s unclear whether this aspect was intentional, but the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) concluded that the law would require “every group of individuals who gather together with a differing level of frequency and perform the broadest variety of imaginable activities, from trekking and football fans, to chess and silk-weaving groups” to register. Failing to do so would be a violation of the law. (So would, apparently, founding an NGO or association without the required number of Cambodian citizen “founding members” required by the law – three and 11, respectively).

The way the law is drafted will make it easy for the government to target and shut down NGOs working on politically sensitive issues (such as, for example, land grabbing). The law will also impair the work of international organizations in Cambodia, as well as the effective disbursement of development aid funding. Without politically independent grassroots organizations operating in Cambodia, donor bodies will be deprived of important informants and partners in the development process.

The law, at first, may seem like a rather dry issue. However, it’s passing could fundamentally change the scene for civil society organizations in Cambodia. These organizations provide a necessary challenge to government action and open a space for citizens – who may feel at risk when dealing directly with government – to express themselves. They also provide important jobs that encourage young people to contribute to their communities, participate in a process of democratic development and become responsible citizens. Organizations like LICADHO protect and empower individuals who speak out against their governments.

It is also important for Canadians to pay attention. CIDA invested $17.03 million into Cambodia in 2010. Without impartial organizations to work with, some of CIDA’s main mandates – such as assisting in land reform – will be unattainable. Addressing such a politicized issue requires an independent civil society.

It should also be self-evident by now that civil society is key to democratic development. I think Hillary Clinton made a realistic assessment of the importance of civil society in a speech at the meeting of Community of Democracies in Krakow, Poland in July 2010:

[…] most countries do have a collection of activists, organizations, congregations, writers, and reporters that work through peaceful means to encourage governments to do better, to do better by their own people. Not all of these organizations or individuals are equally effective, of course. And they do represent a broad range of opinions. And, having been both in an NGO and led NGOs and been in government, I know that it’s sometimes tough to deal with NGOs when you are in the government.

But it doesn’t matter whether the goal is better laws or lower crime or cleaner air or social justice or consumer protection or entrepreneurship and innovation, societies move forward when the citizens that make up these groups are empowered to transform common interests into common actions that serve the common good (emphasis added).

Civil society organizations are helping Cambodians rebuild their nation. Without the pressure these organizations put on the government to respect human rights, the protection they offer to individuals who perform that same function, and the information they provide to development bodies, Cambodians will largely be facing this challenge alone. As Clinton points out, the outcome may be tragic:

[…] along with well-functioning markets and responsible, accountable government, progress in the 21st century depends on the ability of individuals to coalesce around shared goals, and harness the power of their convictions. But when governments crack down on the right of citizens to work together, as they have throughout history, societies fall into stagnation and decay.

Donors are central to preventing the passage of the law. “Continued opposition from western donors and international NGOs is key to preserving Cambodia’s independent civil society. That opposition must be unified, firm, and tied to the two things the government cares about – money and legitimacy,” writes Pilorge. Pressure from individuals and civil society organizations in other countries is also key. Please visit the “Oppose the Cambodian NGO & Associations Law” Facebook Page to learn more about the law.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

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