International and local organizations met over a conference call on Tuesday in a final effort to push for changes to a controversial draft law to regulate the NGO sector before it moves to the next stage of approval.
The groups say they want changes to a third draft of the law, which they fear will hamper their development efforts and leave them open to government interference.
The law is expected to move from the draft stage at the Ministry of Interior for approval by the Council of Ministers in the near future.
In a conference call organized by Washington-based Oxfam America on Tuesday, representatives from a number of organization expressed continued reservations over the law, which many said would weaken civic and social development.
“A country trying to develop without a strong civil society is like trying to ride a bicycle with just one wheel,” Nora O’Connell, a director of policy at Save the Children, said. “You may be able to push it along the road, but it will take a lot longer. You need both government and civil society working together to make real progress.”
Bill Penington, Cambodia’s assistant country director for Care International, said the law would slow down development by impeding the work of organizations.
Such concerns have been echoed by the US State Department officials, who say the new law could be unnecessary and restrict the work of NGOs.
Interior Ministry officials have defended the law as necessary to regulate a growing sector and have dismissed concerns it could be abused.
But critics say the law contains complicated requirements for registration and reporting to the Ministry of Interior, while at the same time it potentially prevents smaller grassroots organizations from forming. The law, they say, could be abused to shut down organizations or associations that are at odds with the government.
Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, a program manager for Freedom House, called the draft law “draconian” and “ambiguous.”
A rights group or other watchdog is “generally going to be critical of the government whether it’s Cambodia or whether it’s the US,” she said.
The law as currently drafted could lead to an organization being shut down, she said. “So this is a significant barrier, not just to the freedom of association as a fundamental principle, but also for the freedom of expression.”
While the organizations say they want the government to redraft the law, there are some who say it should not be necessary at all, given other laws already on the books.
“Things like the civil code, the constitution and also the current laws, actually cover every aspect,” said Brian Lund, East Asia director for Oxfam America.
The government estimates 3,000 non-governmental organizations, either international or local, operate in Cambodia.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the law will “protect the interests of civil society.”