PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The Senate is scheduled to vote Friday on the controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), despite a boycott by the opposition party and heated opposition from civil society.
The draft law has drawn flak from human rights organizations, the main opposition political party, and citizens who say it gives the government excessive control over NGOs and creates a chilling effect for free speech. Government supporters, meanwhile, say that the legislation will prevent terrorism and money laundering, while removing a tool foreign governments use to interfere with national politics.
Representatives of both sides of the debate discussed the LANGO at Meta House yesterday afternoon. Sin Putheary, head of communications at the Cooperation Center for Cambodia, and political analyst Ou Virak spoke about the flaws in the law, while Chris Minko and Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan spoke in its favor.
Mr. Virak emphasized that it is not wrong to bring regulations to the unregulated NGO sphere, but the law needs to protect NGOs, not weaken them. “The law has to protect the rights of civil society and NGOs,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chris Minko, founder of a national volleyball league for disabled athletes, said that laws are necessary to ensure that NGOs do not become pawns of foreign governments, adding that the NGO law is not unique to Cambodia.
“NGOs are not here to become a Trojan horse for the political agendas of other nations…a lot of the aspects of LANGO are normal in my country of Australia,” he said. “If you have an NGO or a charity, you are subjected to a high level of scrutiny.”
The legislation gives the government far-reaching power to shutter NGOs. It requires organizations to disclose financial sources and spending while requiring new organizations to register with the Interior Ministry. Registrations must be renewed every three years, and any organization that fails to meet these demands can be shut down. Organizations are not allowed to conduct activity without a permit.
In an analysis of the fifth draft of the law, which was passed by the National Assembly last week, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said it violates international law: “Denying not only legal capacity to unregistered entities but prohibiting any activity is inconsistent with the right to freedom of association as stated in international human rights law.”
Matt Salmon, the US Chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, took a similar angle in a statement yesterday, adding that the new law is a step backwards for human rights. He wrote: “This new law, which provides a framework for how the existing 5,000 domestic and international NGOs may operate in Cambodia, fundamentally threatens progress on human rights, political accountability, and transparency in governance in the country.”
The government has removed some of the most controversial sections of the law in the fifth and most recent draft, including a clause that banned leaders of dissolved NGOs from starting new organizations and limited administrative expenses to 25 percent of the operating budget. Opponents say the revisions don’t go far enough, and leave many problematic sections of the law intact.
Despite a boycott by the 55 Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members, LANGO easily passed the lower house of the legislature on July 13 with 68 votes by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Analysts say it is unlikely that the CPP-dominated Senate will send the law back to the lower house for revisions. So some human rights groups are searching for alternative ways to overturn the law.
One such alternative is the Constitutional Council, which has the power to declare the law unconstitutional.
The Technical Director of human rights organization Licadho, Am Sam Ath, said he plans to write a letter to lawmakers, asking them to file a complaint about LANGO to the council. Appeals to the council have had little impact on policy. The council is under the executive and legislative branch, and has rubber-stamped CPP policies in the past, including the National Election Committee law earlier this year. (Additional reporting by Brian Gruber)