Transparency International condemns proposed restrictions on civil society in Cambodia

Issued by Transparency International Secretariat

Transparency International strongly condemns a proposed law in Cambodia that has been criticised by domestic and international civil society organisations because it could greatly restrict the voice of the people.

The Cambodian government is trying to quickly pass the Law on Association and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO) without properly consulting the public. Criticism is based on leaked drafts of the law as the government tried to keep the law’s contents secret until it was sent to the National Assembly.

The proposed law is pernicious. It could be used to effectively stop the ability of NGOs to freely criticize government policies or public officials. It creates mandatory registration requirements for NGOs and gives the government the ability to disallow registration based on unclear criteria. The law also requires informal and grassroots organisations to register as NGOs or associations if they want to conduct activities, a real burden for them.

“Civil society is the strongest, most unified representation of the voice of the people in Cambodia and everywhere else in the world. If Cambodia attempts to restrict or shut down civil society, it comes ever closer to having an authoritarian leadership that cannot be criticized, cannot be held to account and, if it chooses, can act corruptly with impunity,” said José Ugaz, Chair of Transparency International.

”We have seen and experienced the negative consequences of these types of laws in other countries -- places like Venezuela, Hungary and Russia -- where our chapters struggle against corruption. These laws are manipulated to attack anti-corruption and human rights activists.”

Hundreds of Cambodian NGOs have campaigned against the law while several foreign embassies and institutions, including the United Nations, the United States, a number of European countries and the Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament have criticized the law and the process behind it.

Aside from an absence of limits on government authority, one of the biggest concerns about the law is its lack of concrete criteria. The latest draft is ambiguous on many important points and leaves room for arbitrary interpretations. For example it requires all NGOs to be “neutral toward all political parties” without defining “neutral”. This raises concern the law will be applied to stop groups from criticizing government policies because it could be considered criticism of the ruling party.

Lastly the lack of transparency and meaningful consultation with Cambodian civil society suggests a disdain for their public leadership and important work.

In November 2014 the full membership of Transparency International and its more than 100 chapters around the world repeated their call on governments “to safeguard the space for civil society in the fight against corruption and for basic rights to work free from fear, harassment and intimidation.”

“Defending the role of civil society is basic democracy. If civil society is seen as threatening, then the answer is to ask deeper questions about Cambodia’s leadership, not block the voice of the people,” said Ugaz.    

Transparency International calls upon the Government of Cambodia to reconsider the law to ensure it follows a transparent and inclusive process and that the concerns of civil society and relevant stakeholders are fully addressed. More importantly, the law should be in compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 22 and Article 19, the UN Convention against Corruption, Article 13 and principle 23 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

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