Civil society groups and NGOs claim that their freedom of assembly is being restricted by local authorities while final amendments to the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, or Lango, were discussed by a government working group this week.
The Interior Ministry’s technical working group, comprising government officials and civil society leaders representing 500 organizations, held its final round of discussionson July 6 to propose changes to 14 articles after conducting discussions over an eight-month period.
The controversial Law on Association and Non-Governmental Organizations went into effect in August 2015, passed by CPP lawmakers amid a boycott by CNRP National Assembly members.
A group of NGOs have requested that 14 articles of Lango either be revised or deleted. The articles in question deal with procedures on registration with the Interior Ministry, taxation procedures, and procedures for establishing and registering a non-governmental organization.The articles up for amendment are: 1, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 20, 24, 25, 26, 30, 31, 32, and 35.
Korn Savang, a coordinator at the NGO Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), said during the recent meeting at the Interior Ministry that he was concerned by the fact that NGOs’ activities are still being surveilled and restricted by local authorities.
“Earlier this month, there were still challenges related doing our duties,” such as holding forums in local communities, he said.
He said that in order to hold meetings or events, NGOs are still required to ask permission from authorities and at some gatherings,authorities had taken photos, compiled lists of participants’ names, or demanded to be sent the organizations’ reports.
“Civil society groups have asked the Interior Ministry to halt this activity and instruct local authorities [to do the same],” Savang said.
He said that in June, about 100 civil society organizations had reported difficulties with local authorities while carrying out their duties.
“There are still challenges when carrying out activities at local levels with authorities monitoring and requiring permission [for NGOs that want] to hold a forum,” he said.
Bun Honn, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry who chairs the working group for Lango, said at the meeting that there was no need for NGOs to “request permission” to do any of their usual activities, but they must cooperate with local authorities to maintain public order.
“The information should be provided to [authorities] sometimes when [the NGO] is doing an activity at any place that could cause provocation,” he said.
“We are very worried about the current situation because in the world, there is terrorism happening, so our country has to think this issue related to security and public order,” Honn said.
However, Soen Senkauna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc said that civil society groups are still concerned with the limiting of NGOs’ freedoms, noting that the Council of Ministers had previously labeled NGOs as dissident groups or said their advocacy on human rights amounted to a “color revolution”.
“We have seen baseless accusations made by the government and even now, they have nottaken back [their accusations] though we have requested it,” he said.
“It has made it difficult for us to carry out our work and daily activities at the local level,” Senkaruna said.
During the meeting, Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development, asked for the deletion of Article 32, which states that unregistered NGOs may be fined more than 5 million riel ($1,220), and amendments to Article 35, which states that the Foreign Affairs Ministry may shut down an international NGO for conducting activities that “harm security.”
“We have requested to delete some paragraph in Article 35 which says that associations and non-governmental organizations [can be shut down if they] conduct activities to harm national security and public order,” he said.
According to Article 35, a foreign NGO can be closed for failing “to properly comply with the memorandum of understanding it signed with the Foreign Affairs Ministry, or where a foreign association or NGOs conducts activities which harm security, stability, and public order, or endanger the national security, national unity, culture, good traditions, and customs of Cambodian national society.”
Kim Eng said it should be up to the courts, not the ministry, to decide whether an organization had acted illegally.
“[It] should be changed to say the ministry can’t terminate the foreign NGO unless the court has made a decision that the association and NGO committed a crime,” Kim Eng said.
“Foreign non-governmental organizations that we have worked with say they are very worried about that point,” he added.
He said that as Cambodia continues to engage with the international community and build its reputation on the global stage, it was important to create a version of Lango that was acceptable for both foreign and local NGOs.
Amending Lango “Will encourage people to promote democracy,” he said, adding: “I think that providing the freedom to assemble is necessary, and I would like you to consider [the amendments].”
In response to the requested removal of Article 32, Secretary of State Bun Honn said that the Constitution states the right to form an association, and guarantees the political rights of those groups, but those rights are ultimately limited by the law.
Honn stressed that the implementation of an individual’s rights cannot violate the rights of another person, or impact security and social public order.
“We cannot look at one corner of the law to promote the interests of civil society groups, but they do not think about the interests of the population of 16 million, or national interests, including national security,” he said.
Article 32 says that authorities may shut down a civil society organization that has not registered with the ministry, and if that group resists, “the concerned association or non-governmental organization shall be subjected to a fine from 5,000,000 Riel to 10,000,000 Riel by the Ministry of Interior. In case of repetition, the competent authorities shall file a complaint to the courts for legal action, regardless of other criminal punishments.”
Honn said that his working group will make a report to the royal government detailing amendments that associations and NGOs have proposed.
“The royal government will make a decision about which articles they will consider for amendment,” he said.
In September 2018, a coalition of NGOs including Adhoc and the Cambodian Center for Human rights released their second annual report analyzing fundamental freedoms in Cambodia.
After spending two years compiling3,214 media articles, polling nearly 2,000 members of the public, and carrying out surveys of hundreds of civils society organizations, the report, “Cambodia Fundamental Freedoms Monitor,” found a 52% increase in restrictions on fundamental freedoms in April 2017 to March 2018 over the year before.
The freedom of association was curtailed throughout the second year due to a combination of new amendments to the legal framework, an increase in surveillance and monitoring of association activities, and a surge in sanctions against political parties and civil society organizations, it added.