Oxfam calls on the Cambodian government to abandon law to restrict civil society voices

By kfield

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Washington, DC — International development and humanitarian organization Oxfam is calling on the government of Cambodia to abandon its version of the proposed “Law on Associations and NGOs” and work together with civil society groups on a solution agreeable to both sides. The government of Cambodia has produced a third draft of this controversial law that, if adopted, could be used to crack down on civil society groups and citizen participation. However, the exact impact of the law is unknown, because the government has not permitted the public to see the new draft.

“Cambodia’s civil society organizations are a reflection of the strength and will of the Cambodian people. Many of Cambodia’s development gains have been made because of group efforts on health, education, food security, and human rights,” said Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness for Oxfam America.   “Under this proposed law, there is genuine fear that progress will be rolled back and citizens will lose out.  As drafted, the law makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Cambodian citizens to organize and address their own needs.”

The proposed law threatens the activities and independence of civil society through a mandatory and complex registration process that lacks any process of appeal. For 20 years, government and civil society cooperation has been vital in the development of Cambodia; cooperation that has been a key factor in helping Cambodia meet its United Nations Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

“If adopted, the impending NGO law would be harmful for future development efforts and essentially turn back the clock for existing development programs,” said Adams. “For example, farmer groups would be unable to assemble and press for resource rights such as land or water, and groups raising awareness of basic human rights in the areas of mining and illegal land eviction, workers rights, and state corruption would all be at risk.”

By restricting the ability of Cambodia’s associations and non-governmental organizations to function effectively, the law would have a crippling effect on the 80 percent of the population still living in extreme poverty that look to these organizations as partners in fighting poverty. 

“Following the first public version of the law, nearly 600 organizations have denounced it publicly,” said Adams. “ The government says they want to control extreme activities with this law but there are already laws on the books that meet that priority. The Cambodian government should take a step back and clearly define exactly what problem they are trying to solve. Then they should engage in a participatory process with their citizens to ensure an enabling environment for civil society, jointly defining the solution.”

Cambodia’s law is part of a global trend of decreasing space for citizens to organize and speak for themselves. The International Center for Non-Profit Law notes that in addition to Cambodia, several countries are planning to amend their NGO laws, or have already done so, including:  Venezuela, Ecuador, Iran, and Bahrain. The list is likely to grow as nearly 90 countries have sought to impose new restrictions on NGOs in the last several years, according to the US State Department 2010 Human Rights Report. 

Oxfam is pleased that Professor Surya Subedi, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights is visiting Cambodia this month to examine the draft law and freedoms of expression and association. The United Nations has yet to issue a statement on Cambodia’s situation and Oxfam looks forward to the international body adding their weight against the recent spate of NGO laws.