4 June 2015
PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The long-debated controversial draft NGO Law is drawing serious attention from national and international stakeholders.
Since the early 1990s, thanks to the processes of democratization and openness, thousands of civil society organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have grown in number, diversity, and influence.
The increasing power of NGOs prompted the Cambodian government to raise questions about roles and responsibilities of these emerging non-state actors. Key questions are related to NGOs’ agendas, sources of funding, transparency, and accountability.
NGOs are principally independent from the government and political parties. They are organized on local, national or international levels. They provide useful forums for societal voice, a means of organizing and representing social interests, policy information, and welfare provisions which are lacking.
But, the Cambodian government is increasingly cautious about certain NGOs becoming separate political and destabilizing forces, and potentially connecting with terrorist networks. Regulating and controlling NGOs is therefore necessary step to ensure public security and stability.
Backlash on the Draft NGO Law
Local and international civil society groups have protested the proposed law. They are concerned that human rights and freedom will be restricted.
Last Tuesday, Scott Busby, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, warned: “The law will impose restrictions and burdens on NGOs that will make it difficult or even impossible to do their crucial work.”
However, the Cambodian government is determined to pass the law.
“The government will approve this law in coming days and we will send it to the National Assembly,” stated Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Other countries have this law, why do they object to Cambodia making this law?”
Experiences from Asian Countries
Some Asian countries have moved to govern NGOs, especially those funded by foreign sources. They want these NGOs to function within boundaries of rules and they believe best serve national interests. Some countries even perceive NGOs as a potential risk for upsetting political order and public safety.
Japan has a vibrant democratic political system. Laws governing NGOs in Japan date to 1896, but were revised in 1998 and 2006. The 1998 and 2006 laws increase the ability of NGOs to participate in society by reducing bureaucratic oversight. As a result, Japan experienced increasing number of active NGOs.
But NGOs are strictly prohibited from getting involved in political activities. The Specified Nonprofit Corporations Law states that NGOs cannot conduct activities “for the purpose of promoting, supporting, or opposing a political principle” or “the purpose of recommending, supporting, or opposing a candidate.”
India, the world’s largest democracy, also has laws governing NGOs. Under Indian law, only those organizations registered with the Foreign Contributions Registration Act are eligible to receive funds from foreign donors. The Act was revised in 2010 in order to monitor more effectively foreign sources of funding.
Security threat is the main concern of Indian government in managing NGOs. Last year, India singled out Greenpeace as a “threat to national economic security.” Moreover, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs claimed the country’s NGOs are “vulnerable to the risks of money laundering and terrorist financing.”
NGO Laws Are Not All Bad
NGO laws can contribute to the development of civil society by providing legal protections for NGOs. Transparent multi-stakeholder consultation is fundamental to develop good NGO laws.
The laws should encourage and facilitate NGO activities. The laws should eliminate lengthy and unnecessary scrutiny of registration and projects, while holding NGOs accountable to public interests.
“To the NGOs and the associations, please do not worry about the law. This law will protect you, this law will support you and open up to your activities,” stated Prime Minister Hun Sen early this week.