NGO laws overseas offer lessons

By: Sarah Taguiam

Widely condemned NGO laws like those ratified in Russia on the weekend and in neighbouring Indonesia two years ago should serve as a warning of the potential “chilling effect” Cambodia’s highly controversial draft NGO law could have on civil society should it pass without consultation, international experts said this week.

After almost a decade of contention, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last month that the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO) will be passed by the National Assembly by the end of May.

Since then, however, the government has refused repeated requests to publicise the current draft for consultation.

“The 2011 draft law had several issues that still need to be fixed. If something comparable to it gets passed, then it will be very problematic,” NGO Forum executive director Tek Vannara said.

“We want the government to release it and show more responsibility, openness and accountability to the people. Over 300 NGOs support us on this.”

According to critics, the previous draft law is a disguised attempt by the government to curtail NGOs’ independence and freedom of assembly as it imposes a complex registration and stringent annual reporting process.

The results of similar laws recently passed in other countries, experts say, have “muzzled” civil society.

Russia on Sunday ratified a law that gives authorities the power to shut down, and penalise foreign-funded local and international NGOs deemed to be “undesirable”.

The legislation builds on a 2012 law that required NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they receive foreign funding or engage in “political activity” – a term that critics say is too broadly defined.

“We’ve been struggling very much. Many [in Russia] have refused to register as foreign agents because they become stigmatised as some sort of foreign spy organisation,” said Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson. “Over the last three years, the work of dozens of organisations has been very restricted . . . and the climate that both local and international NGOs are facing is very hostile.”

In Indonesia, the Law on Mass Organisations, which was passed in 2013, has been met with similar public outcry.

Under the law, all NGOs are required to apply for official approval to operate. The law does not provide any details about the approval process, timelines or penalties for non-compliance. It also prohibits “blasphemous activities” by NGOs against any of the six religions officially recognised under Indonesia’s 1965 Blasphemy Law. There were no definitions provided for these activities.

“The law imposes a variety of vague obligations and prohibitions on NGO activities, and severe limitations on the creation of foreign-funded organisations,” said HRW Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono.

He added that the law is mostly being enforced against environmental NGOs and ethnic groups in West Papua.

“In West Papua, where the law is being exploited, it’s used to arrest and to jail many activists,” he said. “Environmentalists, including indigenous groups and farmer associations, also suffer under this law.”

If not properly vetted, Williamson said, Cambodia’s NGO law could deal a severe blow to the Kingdom’s civil society as seen through the stifling pressure felt by Russian and Indonesian organisations.

“If the current draft has similarities to the Russian NGO laws, then the government should be looking at it in the context of its obligation to allow the freedom of expressions, assembly and association,” he said.

According to international human rights law expert and NGO Monitor legal adviser Anne Herzberg, it is difficult to predict how the forthcoming LANGO could impact NGOs without being privy to the current draft.

“Transparency for all actors impacting society is important. Almost all democratic countries have legislation requiring NGO registration and financial transparency,” Herzberg said. “If this is the sole scope of the law, then it could be a positive development for Cambodia.”

Transparency, however, is the key component lacking in the drafting process, Vannara said.

“From our side, we have already offered NGOs a chance in 2012 to contribute their opinions,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said. “When the official draft goes before the National Assembly, then they could use that as a forum to voice their opinions.”

But Vannara said that “this opportunity is not enough”.

“We are asking for at least two to three months of wide public consultations.”

The draft, Siphan said, will be finalised by the Interior Ministry next week. It will then be discussed for approval during a cabinet meeting and signed by the prime minister before appearing before the National Assembly.