Government of Cambodia Should Heed Domestic and International Outcry over Draft NGO Law
The Government of Cambodia should facilitate and protect, not restrict, the legitimate work of civil society groups, which have voiced serious concerns regarding the pending passage of the Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organisations (LANGO). Civil Rights Defenders has strongly advocated against previous versions of the LANGO, which were widely criticised as vague, restrictive, and lacking in human rights safeguards.
The latest draft of the legislation, which has not been officially distributed for public input, is currently with the Council of Ministers and may be sent to the National Assembly for a vote as soon as the end of May. Lawmakers from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) hold 55 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly.
During 2010 and 2011, facing strong domestic and international criticisms (see timeline below) that the law seriously undermines the right to freedom of association, the government revised the LANGO three times. The law’s necessity has also been questioned in light of existing legislation and administrative measures that already provide an adequate regulatory framework for the registration of civil society groups.
Opposition to this highly problematic law should be understood in a context of on-going government intimidation and harassment of human rights activists and NGOs in recent years as well as chronic deficiencies in judicial independence and other checks and balances.
On 28 December 2011, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the law would be temporarily shelved but could be re-introduced. In early April 2015, Hun Sen suddenly announced that the law has been finalised and would be passed by the National Assembly in May.
No broad-based and substantive consultations have been held on the 34-article law since December 2011, when the government released the fourth draft. Under that draft, which is believed to be the draft currently under consideration by the Council of Ministers, registration is effectively still mandatory and activities by non-registered groups are severely limited. Small informal networks, grassroots groups and social movements will likely be most affected by the burdensome registration requirements. The draft law vests the Ministry of Interior (MoI) with broad discretionary powers to deny registration and terminate or suspend groups without providing precise and legitimate justifications. There are no provisions for repealing suspension or termination.
Any legislation that imposes overbroad restrictions on basic rights and grants unchecked, arbitrary powers to officials is not in compliance with Cambodia’s human rights obligations, and risks becoming a dangerous tool of repression disguised as law.
Timeline of International Responses to the Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organisations
Domestic civil society groups, donors, UN agencies and experts, and international human rights groups all raised serious concerns regarding successive drafts of the LANGO since the first draft was published in December 2010.
In September 2011, then UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia told the government of Cambodia to stop the draft LANGO at that time, expressing concern that “it may hamper the legitimate work of NGOs in the country.”
In October 2011, three independent UN human rights experts voiced their concerns in a public statement, calling mandatory registration “a clear infringement of the right to freedom of association”, guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a state party. They also raised concerns regarding “the high minimum membership requirement for organisations and associations; the lack of clarity of the draft’s provisions governing criteria for registration, suspension or termination; and the overly cumbersome and bureaucratic registration process for foreign NGOs, which could limit the scope of their activities and hamper their independence.”
On 22 December 2011, Civil Rights Defenders joined 11 regional and international human rights groups in calling for the law to be revised to protect civil society or be withdrawn. The signatories argued that any revisions should “aim to support their activities instead of creating a legal framework allowing for arbitrary closure of organisations or the denial of registration.”
In January 2014, Cambodia underwent its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council. It accepted recommendations from Canada and the Netherlands to ensure all legislations enable the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms of assembly and association and to recognise the importance of a diverse civil society in a democracy. Cambodia also accepted a recommendation from Italy during its first UPR to facilitate the work of NGOs and other civil society groups.
On 15 April 2015, four UN agencies with offices in Cambodia wrote a letter to Sar Kheng, the Deputy Prime Minister, seeking the latest draft of the law and offering technical advice to ensure the law conforms with Cambodia’s obligations under domestic and international laws.
After reviewing Cambodia’s report on its compliance with the ICCPR in March 2015, the UN Human Rights Committee stated its concerns regarding legal provisions that impose excessive restrictions on NGOs and recommended that it “avoid the use of vague terminology and overly broad restrictions” in current and pending legislation.
On 30 April 2015, the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, stated his concerns that important laws have been passed recently without meaningful consultation and called on the authorities to ensure transparency and public participation in the law-making process.
On 1 June 2015, ten international human rights organisations called on the Cambodian government to drop the plans to adopt a new law on non-governmental organisations and associations (“NGOs”): “We ask you to press the Cambodian government to drop this legislation entirely, and thus allow Cambodia’s vibrant civil society to develop and further fulfil its crucial democratic function as a promoter and protector of the full spectrum of economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights in Cambodia.”. Civil Rights Defenders is one of the signatories, alongside for example Human Rights Watch and Frontline Defenders. The letter can be found here: Call on Cambodia government to drop draft NGO Law
For texts of the draft LANGO, analyses and updates, please click here.
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Comments on the Fourth Draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations of the Kingdom of Cambodia, 13 December, 2011.
Joint Statement of Civil Society Organisations on the Draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisation (LANGO), 7 April 2015.