Curtailing civil society in the Kingdom

Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh on International Labour Day in 2011

Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh on International Labour Day in 2011 to protest against the NGO law. LICADHO
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 15 June 2015)

Several laws currently under consideration are threatening to bring about the end of free civil society in Cambodia. Several others have recently been passed, radically reforming our judiciary and rules governing electoral campaigning in a manner that centralises power in the executive branch and erodes the checks and balances that a healthy democracy requires.

The recently passed Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly also prohibits civil society organisations from making statements or conducting any other activities deemed to be supportive of political parties during election periods, which some fear could be used to stop civil society from asking questions, criticising candidates or seeking to better inform voters. Others are looming – some shelved, some threatening to pass – focusing on cybercrime, trade unions, land use and other issues related to the free exercise of our human rights.

The draft law on associations and NGOs (LANGO) is the government’s most recent attempt to push through legislation that has the potential to undermine human rights without genuine and broad public consultations. The last draft of the LANGO was seen in 2011, and was criticised for giving the government overly broad powers to shut down civil society organisations in a way that many feared was open to abuse.

The law lay dormant until May when Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that it would be passed that month. As the government has refused to release the new draft, speculation on its content and potential impact has grown steadily among civil society organisations, donors and the diplomatic community. However, now the Council of Ministers has reportedly approved a new text, and a leaked version has been widely distributed, a version that confirms many observers’ fears that the law would be worse than the one proposed in 2011.

The law in its current form makes no distinction between community-based organisations and other kinds of associations, and includes mandatory registration requirements for all NGOs and associations working in the country, prohibiting any activity by unregistered groups. These provisions would enable the authorities to restrict the legitimate activities of a wide range of organisations, including local community and grassroots groups and social movements.

Equally concerning is the vagueness of some of the language contained in the text. The government can refuse to register organisations that “jeopardise peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of the Cambodian national society”, ambiguous terms that are clearly open to broad interpretation and potential political manipulation.

Furthermore, the law states that foreign associations and foreign and domestic NGOs must remain “neutral toward all political parties”, and introduces harsh sanctions for failing to comply with the law.

All in all, the law will seriously undermine the rights to freedom of association and expression, impair citizens’ constitutional right to participate actively in the political life of the nation and undermine civil society’s legitimate role in holding public authorities to account.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition minority leader Sam Rainsy have publicly embraced what they call a political “culture of dialogue”. But so far, sadly, that dialogue has only taken place between the two of them and their high-level staff, and has not been extended to include the public or civil society.

At the same time, a number of local and international organisations have come together to kick off a campaign urging the government to STOP AND CONSULT on the LANGO and other critical laws likely to have a negative impact on human rights.

As part of these efforts, I joined a delegation of Cambodian civil society members in Washington to call on the US and other governments to urge the government of Cambodia to be more transparent, inclusive and consultative. As I walked the halls of Congress in Washington from one meeting to another, I gained energy from the respect and empathy I found. But each of those steps also highlighted for me what could soon be a fantasy: walking the halls of parliament in my own country to advocate for change.

Members of civil society in Cambodia must have explicit permission to even set foot in our National Assembly. Although members of the government have said they support the idea of consultations, we have yet to see the proof of it. Instead, as our STOP AND CONSULT campaign gained momentum, an official warned that those who criticise the government, even with something as simple as a tweet, would be punished.

Cambodia’s democracy was hard won. After a civil war and a devastating genocide, my country now has a constitution that guarantees our rights. But we need more than words on paper. A lack of transparency and inclusive dialogue around law making is threatening to close the space for those who work every day to provide services to their fellow citizens and make our country better. This is why we are calling on the government to draft a law to ensure that the legislative process takes into consideration the views of multiple stakeholders including civil society, and most importantly, the public. We’re calling on the international community to stand with us.

Now back in Cambodia, I still hold out hope that when tomorrow comes, citizens like me will still be able to speak and serve our fellow citizens freely. Our future depends on it.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

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What direction is civil society space taking in Cambodia?

Opposition vice president Kem Sokha shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Senate in July last year.
Opposition vice president Kem Sokha shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Senate in July last year. Heng Chivoan
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 21 April 2015)

As Cambodians return from celebrating the New Year, new threats to democracy and fundamental freedoms seem to be in the air.

Despite the repeated promises from the government to engage in significant reforms, including more cooperation with civil society, the latest statements and actions suggest the opposite. The recent adoption of the election laws seems to confirm a well-known pattern: crucial pieces of legislation are passed without meaningful public consultations.

Interestingly, this time the executive announced its intention to adopt the laws while its delegation in Geneva was engaging in a dialogue with the UN Human Rights Committee on the adherence of Cambodia to the provisions of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. It does not come as a surprise that in its concluding observations the committee then urged the government to ensure transparency in the drafting process and facilitate public dialogue.

This is in fact not the first time that the government had used these methods to adopt important laws. It is worth recalling that the three laws on the judiciary, which are to regulate one of the three fundamental powers of the state, were adopted with no constructive dialogue with civil society and while the opposition was boycotting the parliament. Those laws have proved not to ensure the independence of the judiciary and must be amended to that scope.

Now the two main parties have come to a compromise, and an apparent culture of dialogue has taken the place before held by confrontation. This development needs to be applauded as long as it involves open and constructive dialogue within political parties and with other stakeholders. Unsurprisingly, Cambodia ranked very low in the World Justice Project (WJP) Open Government Index 2015.

The intention recently expressed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and by other senior lawmakers to adopt a highly controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) without any further public consultation is particularly worrying. According to unconfirmed information, the 2011 draft has been substantially changed, but no copy has been made public, with the clear intention of excluding civil society from the law-making debate. Despite how no real comment can be provided on a draft that is either four years old or a secret, it is especially alarming that civil society has not been consulted since 2011. This is a law that would severely affect NGOs’ ability to work and to carry out their role in society.

According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “civil society space is the place civil society actors occupy within society; the environment and framework in which civil society operates; and the relationships among civil society actors, the State, private sector and the general public”. What direction is civil society space taking in Cambodia? Are we moving forwards or backwards? Over the years, the space for public participation has undeniably improved, but much remains unachieved. A vibrant civil society is at the foundation of any democracy; therefore the space for civil society to operate should be protected and not threatened.

Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in public affairs, are human rights ensured in the Cambodian Constitution and in international treaties that Cambodia has acceded. Those fundamental rights enable on one hand people to engage in the progress of their country and on the other states to move towards democracy. At present a political environment that values and encourages civic contribution is much needed in Cambodia. A real democracy requires transparency, public consultations and a strong commitment to uphold human rights.

It is high time for all political parties in Cambodia to work together to ensure such an environment and to cooperate with civil society, starting from holding consultations on the draft LANGO.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

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Turning 30: My Thirtieth Birthday Celebration  

I got a dream when I turned ten: I wanted to be a doctor. It was just imagination but I wanted to be a famous doctor in Cambodia and if possible in the world to cure poor people. As I am a left-handed person, I wished that I could use this left hand to cure people effectively.

Then my dream changed. When I turned twenty I started an internship with a civil society organization. This was the pathway that totally changed my vision. Ten years later, I am obsessed with civil society work and social media platforms, and I have realized that this is who I want to be, not the doctor I had dreamt to become.

However, putting my life-path back to the intersection where I turned my back to a medical doctor career, probably other scenario could have happened. I might have been satisfied with myself or not, but I keep joking about that: probably those who know me now would have been my clients for medical service, or maybe we would have not met in this life-path.

At the end of this month, I will turn 30—an age when you could feel that you are getting old, but I would say the age when “I grow up.” My dream has not really changed. As quoted by Banyan Blog:

As a child, she once dreamed of being a doctor, to serve the poor, but now her dream is to help create a freer, more open and just Cambodia.

I now have a wish to celebrate my 30th birthday: that you all join my cause to empower others to grow up. In 2014, I launched with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) the pilot “Empowering Cloghers Project”. Through the microgrant support from the Global Voice Online we strengthened the online presence and influence of female university students from rural Cambodia by enabling them to become Cloghers– and to become active online. Cloghers are Cambodian bloggers – locally known as “cloggers” – who are women, thus “cloghers”. My wish is to empower 30 more cloghers and I would like to see my friends to be active citizens and to join my cause by contributing to support this idea. We need to collect roughly US$3000.

I will start collecting my birthday gift from now until 30th March when I will really turn 30. Gift me with three numbered—which could be $3 or $30 or more—for “My Thirtieth Birthday Celebration”!

Your gift will be properly collected, recorded and managed with transparency and accountability. Click here to gift me.

Alternatively, please contact me via chaksopheap@gmail.com for any inquiry about this cause or way of donation.

 

Posted in Appreciation, Clogher, Gender, Personal | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment