Cambodia's proposed NGO law stirs suspicion and concern

Cambodian school children are served rice for breakfast as part of a feeding programme in Somrong Tong district , Kampong Speu province, about 60km (35 miles) west of the capital Phnom Penh in this file photo taken June 17, 2008. REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea
By: Reuters
PHNOM PENH (AlertNet) - A proposed law regulating non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Cambodia is raising concerns among advocacy and aid groups that it will be used by the government to restrict their activities in the impoverished Southeast Asian country.

During a ceremony in November to mark 30 years of NGO-government cooperation, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said a law governing the non-profit sector would be next on the agenda after the enactment of an anti-corruption bill.
Hun Sen has talked about enacting an NGO law since 2008, but this was the first time he indicated a time frame -- the anti-corruption bill is headed to the National Assembly and many expect it to be passed soon after.
"NGOs demand that the government shows transparency, but they can't show the same to us," The Phnom Penh Post newspaper quoted Hun Sen as saying.
"We respect the local and international NGOs whose activities serve humanity and help the government of Cambodia ... They will not be threatened by this draft law," he added. "But we believe that some NGOs whose activities seem to serve the opposition party will be afraid of it."
Detractors say the draft law is an attempt to muzzle a burgeoning civil society that has become openly critical of Hun Sen who has been prime minister for the past 25 years.
His ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has faced growing criticism that it has abused its power by using its parliamentary majority to interfere with the judiciary and restrict political freedom since its last election win in 2007.
Last year, Cambodia passed legislation tightening defamation laws and outlawing public protests by more than 200 people, which rights groups and donors said were moves to stifle criticism of the ruling party.
The United Nation's special rapporteur for human rights, Surya Subedi, has also flagged up concerns about many of Cambodia's institutions, like the courts, saying they were weak.
Against this backdrop, the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), an umbrella organisation representing more than 100 local and international NGOs, released a statement in December to say the time was not right for an NGO law. It was signed by some 230 NGOs.
"NGOs are also concerned about possible restrictions of activity on grounds of discretionary interpretation and use of the law, particularly given the deterioration of human rights situation in Cambodia since 2008," Borithy Lun, CCC's executive director, told AlertNet.
NGO officials say they have not seen a draft of the law and there have been no discussions, despite formal requests to various government ministries.
"We are not against the law. If we are spending money on behalf of the people of Cambodia, it is right that we should report to them," Sharon Wilkinson, CARE International's Cambodia country director, told AlertNet.
However, she expressed concern that a 2002 draft law was vague on the basis on which the government may refuse to register an NGO whose staff, it said, could face a fine and jail if found to be operating without the necessary registration.
Supporters of the draft law say, in a country of only 15 million people, it would help regulate a sector accommodating more than 3,000 NGOs and associations -- according to some estimates -- working on issues ranging from health, education and infrastructure to environmental protection and governance.
Although Cambodia has been peaceful for over a decade and recently enjoyed several years of economic growth and political stability, 40 percent of its population still live below the poverty line.
According to the latest U.N. human development index, four out of 10 people live below the poverty line of $1.25 a day, more than a third of children under five are underweight, life expectancy at 60.6 years is just above Namibia and Gabon and close to a quarter of the adults are illiterate.
"In Cambodia, it is easy to set up shop or register as an NGO and relatively easy to hire expatriates. It is very open and there is almost no restriction," said Francis Perez, country director of Oxfam in Cambodia.
However, he added: "The concerns of different sectors around the NGO law are legitimate and should be discussed openly."
The plethora of NGOs in Cambodia has raised questions about their own levels of transparency and accountability as well as the hefty salaries earned by expatriate staff compared to Cambodian ones.
However, it is still unclear to what extent a new NGO law would address these issues.
"The need for regulation should not be determined by the amount of NGOs, but by the actual need for further regulation," said CCC, which says self-regulation through the Good Practices Project, a voluntary certification system it has set up, is the best way to ensure NGO transparency.
For more on the Good Practices Project, click here.
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