In Geneva today, an independent United Nations human rights expert today urged the Cambodian Government to carefully review a draft law that may hamper the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia.
“The Government of Cambodia should not proceed with the draft NGO law in its present form,” said Surya P. Subedi, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, as he presented his annual report on the situation of human rights in Cambodia to the UN Human Rights Council.
Many of the civil society organizations in Cambodia have been playing an important role alongside the State in delivering key social services in the areas of education, health, rural development, sanitation, social welfare and the protection of natural resources and the environment, he noted.
In a news release issued in Geneva, Mr. Subedi urged the Government to take into account the concerns raised during the consultation process before enacting the law, especially the “onerous” requirements for registration and the lack of clear criteria on which registration applications will be considered.
In his report to the Council, the Special Rapporteur acknowledged that the overall situation of human rights had improved over the years in Cambodia, especially with the enactment of a number of key legislations.
At the same time, he underscored that there was still “a great deal of work to be done to strengthen the rule of law, to accelerate the process of democratization and to enhance the capacity of parliament to hold executive to account.”
The NGO law, now in its third draft form, has received strong criticism from several international organizations which have denounced Cambodia’s law which regulates associations and nongovernmental organizations, arguing it undermines rather than promote civil society and institutions. The law would impose new reporting and registration rules on NGOs and aid groups working in the country, making it very difficult for them to operate.
Several human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Forum-Asia, Global Witness, Southeast Asia Press Alliance, Frontline Defenders,the World Organisation Against Torture and the International Federation for Human Rights said that the law should be abandoned immediately. In a joint statement, the groups said that the law would “allow the Royal Government of Cambodia to intimidate and potentially shut down… groups that criticize the government.”
Specific problems with the legislation include:
- Registration remains compulsory despite repeated calls to follow international standards that registration be voluntary. Unregistered associations and NGOs are prohibited from operating. Mandatory registration undermines the right to freedom of association guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution, and Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party.
- Excessive registration and reporting procedures, which risk penalizing and criminalizing small organizations, associations, and community level networks, remain largely in place.
- Concerns about a lack of legal safeguards, meaningful judicial review mechanisms, or right to appeal have not been addressed, and concerns regarding the vagueness of definitions in the original draft have not been dealt with.
While visiting Cambodia earlier this year, Mr. Subedi said that the strengthening of civil society and international institutions which serve the public good has been one of Cambodia’s achievements over the past two decades. He warned that the new law would erode any progress made in this area.
He visited Cambodia in February and June of this year on a special fact-finding mission. Subedi met with victims of human rights violations, villagers involved in land disputes, members of political parties and representatives from NGOs in addition to his talks with government officials. In a statement at the end of his June visit, he called on Cambodia to allow its citizens greater freedom of speech: “Some of the current internal rules of procedure of the National Assembly are not conducive to enabling all members to enjoy freedom of speech in holding the executive to account and in defending the rights of the people they represent,” he said in Phnom Penh on June 3. He noted that while the general human rights situation in Cambodia had improved, the fear of legal action for alleged defamation, disinformation and incitement appeared to make journalists, human rights defenders and political activists resort to self-censorship.
In presenting the report to the UN today, he said that while Cambodia has passed laws to protect human rights, they have not been implemented and that Cambodia “it still has a
long way to go to fulfil its obligations under international human rights treaties ratified by
He is particularly concerned about freedom of expression as well as land and housing rights. He believes that the peaceful expression of opinion should not be dealt with under the Penal Code as is currently the case with crimes such as defamation and disinformation. He is also concerned about the narrowing of space for people, including those belonging to different political parties, to express their views peacefully and without fear. He is particularly concerned in this regard by the charges of incitement, defamation and dissemination of information that have been brought against human rights defenders, land rights activists and individuals of communities defending their land and housing rights in the face of eviction.
He also noted that 2011 marks the marks the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, which set in motion the peace process in Cambodia. He called on the international community to continue assisting Cambodia in its efforts to establish the rule of law and reconstruct State institutions.