The international civil society community are calling for the Cambodian government to drop a law that they fear will threaten the independence of civil society organisations if implemented.
Like the proverbial broken record, I am once again compelled to document and bemoan another regressive law that will limit the independence of civil society organisations (CSOs) in a world in which such polices are spreading like wildfire. Without looking through the myriad notes, articles and publications I have made on this trend in just the last couple of years I can think of examples of proposed or enacted laws to this effect in Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, Hungary, Indonesia, India … I wont go on.
The nation attracting concerned glances from the international civil society community at this particular moment in time is Cambodia, whose government is considering reviving a law that would further restrict the ability of CSOs to engage in advocacy. The proposed Law on Associations, and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) has been drafted without consultation with the sector, and has not, from what I can gather, been made available for public scrutiny.
On this lack of consultation, Maina Kiai, the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, stated that; “It is ironic that the drafting of a law regulating civil society in Cambodia excludes civil society from the process,” the UN Human Rights expert said, stating that he has “serious concerns about a process that would result in the adoption of the LANGO without meaningful public participation.”
However, if media reports that the draft Bill is a later iteration of a 2011 draft that was later dropped under international pressure are accurate, then the consternation of transnational advocacy networks is not misplaced.
According to Human Rights Watch, Prime Minister Hun Sen has long expressed hostility towards independent NGOs, particularly those that criticize human rights violations, a culture of impunity for officials committing them, government development priorities, the extractive industries and deforestation, and corruption. This was the principle motivation for the 2011 law and hence forth allegedly underpins LANGO.
Mr. Sen justified the renewed push to tighten control of civil society in Cambodia in a speech on April 1, 2015 by stating that “without it, the government does not know the sources of funding of NGOs” and that it would prevent funds from terrorist groups from seeping into the country (translated by ICNL).
It is therefore likely that we will see restrictions and the need for prior government approval in foreign funding of Cambodian NGOs, not unlike those seen in Russia, Hungary and recently India amongst many others. In addition, we may well – though this is little more than a combination of speculation and hearsay – see stricter rules on advocacy and campaigning work that is critical of government policy and actions.
Clearly, there is a need to ensure that CSOs are well regulated and free from abuse. The Cambodian government should be encouraged to ensure the proper (and fair) implementation of the Cambodian Civil Code which deals with CSO registration. Furthermore, criminal laws (such as the Penal Code) spell out and provide sanctions for a broad range of recognizably criminal offenses. Furthermore, rather than create new restrictive powers, the government should look to lift archaic laws on defamation which make it possible for CSOs and their staff to face criminal charges for defaming the government.
I join the international call for the Cambodian government to drop, or at least allow a meaningful consultation on the text of LANGO. I also echo the sentiments and applaud the strength of conviction shown by signatories of letters such as this and this. It is as good of defence as I can think of, of the emerging role for INGOs as international advocacy networks that can ride in to defend domestic civil society.
A representative of Human Rights Watch said that; “Donors and other governments should speak out strongly to protect the freedom of Cambodia’s organizations to continue their valuable work in poverty reduction, child protection, human rights, and other areas,”
Though I agree that we need to speak out, I take issue with what it is that we are defending. If we are merely defending the “valuable work” that CSOs do as being the services that they provide then I think that we may be perpetuating the trend that we are trying to fight. Rob Reich has done some interesting work in looking at the philosophical strength of arguments for justifying tax breaks for charitable giving and he comes to a startling conclusion; that you can’t justify incentives for giving on the work that CSOs do. Rather, Reich supports a pluralistic view of society where government understands the importance of a vibrant civic space in which people are able to pool their agency in groups to challenge and innovate is fundamentally healthy, and consistent with sustainable development.
If one thing is unquestionably true, it is that our current arguments for why governments should create an enabling environment for civil society are not working particularly well. We need to be stronger and in our defence of civil society as an end in itself, not a means to delivering public services.