Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NGO and Associations Joint Statement on the Third draft of the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations

We, civil society organizations, including associations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), appreciate that state-civil society cooperation has been a key factor in the development of Cambodia from a war-torn country to a peaceful, vibrant developing country. While government and civil society organizations have often held different opinions, these bodies have met in constructive discussions and cooperated.

The proposed NGO legislation indicates a departure from this successful path. Civil society organizations, including associations and NGOs, are very concerned that the third draft of the law grants far-reaching power to government authorities to control the rights of citizens to organize and express themselves. These rights are set out in the Cambodian Constitution (Articles 31, 35 and 42) and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (Articles 19, 21, 22) which Cambodia has signed and ratified, as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 19, 20).

The diversity of civil society in Cambodia is our strength and demonstrates the important range of perspectives the sector contributes to Cambodia’s development. We have now collectively drawn together voices from this broad base into all our discussions on the Law on Associations and NGOs (NGO Law), and there have been many responses. Some organizations have argued that there should be no such law, while others decided to engage with the government in consultation in an attempt to improve the draft law. Others chose to lobby on specific issues within the law. All these organizations have kept a dialogue throughout, respecting each other’s perspectives. This is what democracy is about.

Today we all stand together. Regardless of our separate approaches to addressing the law, our opinion is united: the draft law we now see before us is unacceptable.
We understand that a sovereign state such as Cambodia has the right to promulgate laws, regulations and practices in accordance with international democratic principles. However, the process of enacting laws must respect those democratic principles. Moreover, new laws must not infringe upon the fundamental rights of the people, including their rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression. The social and economic development of Cambodia in recent years would never have happened if the opportunities to freely organize and express opinions had been curtailed. Successful development of societies worldwide goes hand-in-hand with increased openness.
In our view, the third draft of the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations has not changed substantially from the second draft. It continues to fail to respect the fundamental rights outlined above.

We would like to point out four main areas of concern in the third draft:
1                    Registration is mandatory and complex, rather than voluntary and simple.
2                    There are no safeguards to insure that either denials of registration or involuntary dissolutions are imposed objectively.
3                    The lawdoes not include a time period for an appeals process for the denial of registration.
4                    Key terms in the law are left undefined, and many sections are vague.

Registration is mandatory and complex, rather than voluntary and simple: Article 6 on Prohibiting Provisions remains effectively unchanged. A clause has been added which states that unregistered associations or NGOs will not enjoy any benefit from the law. However, this is effectively undermined by the second part of the clause, which states that such organizations may not operate in the name of an association or NGO. Registration is thus mandatory and unregistered groups are banned. There is also no provision allowing for associations and NGOs to remain active while their registration and re-registration applications are pending, despite the lengthy time period allowed for those processes. As such, the draft law’s mandatory registration requirements constitute restrictions on the freedom of association, which violate the rights given to Cambodian citizens under the Cambodian Constitution and principles which Cambodia has promised to adhere to under Article 22 of the ICCPR. Under Article 22, and other major human rights covenants, freedom of association is a right, and not something that must first be granted by the government to citizens.

There are no safeguards to insure that either denials of registration or involuntary dissolutions are imposed objectively: Articles 17 and 32, which deal with applications for registration and requests for Memoranda of Understanding (MoU), lack important safeguards such as objective standards for review. These articles undermine Article 65 of the Civil Code. Similarly, Articles 49 and 50 allow the involuntary suspension, dissolution or termination of associations and NGOs but fail to include any guidance as to the circumstances under which such penalties may be imposed.

The law does not include a time period for an appeals process for the denial of registration: Although we recognize the inclusion of the right to appeal in Article 17, this appeal process remains undefined. Both domestic and foreign entities should be provided with a written explanation in case of denial, and both should be entitled to appeal that denial in court on an expedited basis and be allowed to operate while the court proceeding takes place.

Key terms in the law are left undefined, and many sections are vague: Clarification of various terms in the draft law is needed; the law should incorporate a Glossary of Terms as well as Explanatory Notes for every article.

During the consultation process, civil society organizations have clearly pointed out these weaknesses. We are deeply disappointed that the third draft fails to address these main areas of concern.

We, the undersigned associations and NGOs, therefore collectively and respectfully call on the Royal Government of Cambodia to reconsider our key recommendations and incorporate them in the next draft of the Law. We also ask that the final draft be shared publicly before it is approved by the Council of Ministers or reviewed and voted on by the National Assembly. 

Please click here to see the statement of NGOs relating to third draft of NGOs Law: https://docs.google.com/?tab=mo&authuser=0&pli=1#folders/0B3LzPsPRNUiwZTc4MmQxYmYtY2VhNi00NDhiLTkxODItMDI3ZjdjYWQwM2Vh

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