After years of apprehension and speculation, in December the Cambodian government finally released a draft version of a law to regulate foreign and domestic NGOs, Associations and Alliances. On Monday a consultation meeting was held, inviting comment from civil society on the draft.
Regulation of civil society is not in and of itself a bad thing. It can help minimise corruption and promote accountability across the sector. The problem arises, as has been seen in other contexts, when the legislation hinders or prevents the positive activities of NGOs. In an article in the Phnom Penh post this week, the British Embassy expressed its hope that “an NGO law can facilitate the growth of this sector, and not hold it back”.
However, there are growing concerns that the new law will increase restrictions on civil society. A number of civil society networks, including CAFOD partners, have published a statement and accompanying report outlining some of their concerns about the content of the new law.
The draft law as it currently stands requires a fairly arduous registration process for both domestic and foreign NGOs. A similar level of detailed reporting on activities and budget is further required following registration. The risk is that these requirements (and associated fees) will seriously challenge or, worse, render it impossible for smaller provincial or community-based organisations to continue their operations. It could also limit the work which international (foreign) NGOs are able to do in the country, and generally make the day-to-day work of domestic NGOs more difficult.
Cambodian civil society is also calling for further detail concerning the criteria against which civil society might be refused registration or be involuntarily ‘dissolved’ by government. There seems to be no appeals process for such decisions.
The government is defending its position and is dismissing claims that the new law is an attempt to increase control over civil society. However, in the context where there is a global trend towards closing down civil society space, it is understandable that NGOs are expressing concerns about the new law and seeking clarity where needed. (Check out this new report from Civicus about global trends in civil society space). It’s positive to see that the government is engaging with Cambodian civil society about the new law and we hope to see this dialogue continue in order to address the concerns and questions being raised.