Operating a nongovernmental organization in Cambodia is about to get a lot more complicated. The Southeast Asian country is set to approve strict regulations this week that are similar to controversial laws proposed in other parts of the world.
As it turns out, China and Egypt aren’t the only countries making headlines for their attempts to tighten the grip around domestic and international nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs) ability to operate.
Last week, amid protests and a voting boycott, the Cambodian parliament approved controversial draft legislation that will give it the ability to disband NGOs if their activities jeopardize “peace, stability, and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of Cambodian society.”
Any group advocating for human rights, basic freedoms, and good governance can be shut down and criminalized.
The Law on Associations and Nongovernmental Organizations (LANGO) received unanimous support from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to Shanghai Daily. All 55 lawmakers from the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party boycotted the session—the bill only needed a simple majority to pass. It will now move to the Senate where it is expected to be approved this week.
For a country with one of the highest NGO concentrations in the world, this is troubling news.
Similar to the proposed laws in China and Egypt, the Cambodian legislation will require NGOs to register with the government and be subjected to increased oversight and scrutiny. If they don’t comply, NGOs can be fined, penalized, and asked to close up show. And, like its international counterparts, LANGO has been blasted by the human rights community.
“Should the draft law be adopted, any group advocating for human rights, basic freedoms, and good governance can be shut down and criminalized. It will ultimately have a disastrous impact on Cambodian citizens’ democratic participation in furthering the development of their country,” United Nations human rights expert Maina Kiai said in a statement.
Kiai, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said one of the more troubling facts about the legislative process has been the complete lack of transparency. “Despite repeated requests from a wide range of stakeholders, no draft was publicly released for several months until after the text was already approved,” he said. “Transparency, public participation and accountability are the bedrock of any legislative process in a democratic society.”
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights warned that the legislation will allow the government to shut out dissenting voices and called the rushed adoption of LANGO “deeply deplorable.” And a letter cosigned by 38 Cambodian-based NGOs accused the government of demonstrating a “complete disregard for the Cambodian Constitution, international law, and extensive condemnation by civil society, the opposition party, citizens, and the international community.”
Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng spoke out against the allegations after the parliamentary session in which LANGO was passed.
“We had spent 20 years to make this law, which aims to protect the rights and freedoms of those organizations and to enhance cooperation between the organizations and the government,” he told reporters.