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Foreign Ministry Cracks Down on Criticism of Contentious NGO Law

Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) holds the pocket version of Cambodia's constitutional law during a press conference on the “stop and consult” campaing about the draft Law on Associations and Nongovernmental Organizations on Monday, May 4, 2015. Representatives of some 270 NGOs and INGOs sat in a panel during the press conference on the contoversial proposed law they say is aimed at restricting their work. (Noeu Vannarin/VOA Khmer)

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday summoned key officials from four UN agencies, warning them to stop criticizing a draft law to govern NGOs in the country.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong said the agencies—the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Unicef, UN Women, and United Nations Population Fund—had crossed a line in their criticism of the law in local media.

“I told them: I have read their assignment letters from their bosses again and again, and I did not see any word assigning them to criticize the Cambodian government in any sector,” Hor Namhong said.

The UN human rights office, however, posted a message on its website this week, saying the agencies “were acting within their mandates” and continue to offer “support for dialogue with civil society on this important law.”

Hor Namhong also penned a diplomatic note to US Ambassador William Todd, calling his recent calls for Cambodia to make the law public and open for comment “extremely insolent” and a form of interference in Cambodian affairs.

The draft law, which has been leaked but never publicly released, would give the government tight control of NGOs, including pro-democracy and rights groups, and has been widely criticized by international and local organizations.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he wants the law drafted by the end of May.

Cambodian organizations, however, are urging the administration to throw out the law entirely. The law will affect some 4,000 NGOs in the country.

Yong Kim Eng, president of People Center for Development and Peace, told VOA Khmer that the law is not necessary. “Why do we have to rush?” he said. “What about the other laws that serve the interests of the people.”

Laws on land and titling and access to information are needed, for example, he said. The NGO law serves the government’s interest, but not the public’s, he said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said civil society groups do not have authority in this matter and are instead relying on their connections from work with foreigners to push their agendas. The draft law has been carefully considered and is not just in the interest of the government, he said.