Global Policy Forum

Donor Government Asked to Review Cambodia Aid if NGO Law is Passed


Foreign NGOs in Cambodia have called upon donor governments, such as the US, UK and Australia, to “reassess” their aid packages if Cambodia passes a controversial law curtailing NGO operations. NGOs in Cambodia have expressed concern that the law will prevent various organizations from representing and protecting marginalized Cambodians, such as farmers and the disabled. As more states begin to regulate NGO activities, it is important that changes are made for legitimate reasons, not political purposes.

By Mark Tran

August 26, 2011

Human rights organisations are calling on donor governments to reassess their aid programmes to Cambodia if the country passes a law that can be used to muzzle local and foreign NGOs.

Ten groups have written to William Hague, the foreign secretary, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and Australia's foreign minister Kevin Rudd, sounding the alarm on a draft law now before Cambodia's council of ministers.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), Global Witness and others say the draft law, if passed in its present form, threatens to severely restrict civil society's right to freedom of association and expression.

"As such, the law will limit the ability of Cambodia's development partners to ensure that programmes reach their intended grass-roots beneficiaries," the letter says.

The letter urges the foreign ministers to make it clear to the Cambodian government that, if the proposed changes are adopted, they will reassess their aid programmes and urge multilateral aid agencies to review their assistance.

The key concern for human rights groups is a provision under the law which states that associations and organisations cannot operate in Cambodia unless complex registration applications have been formally approved by the government.

"The draft law will effectively authorise arbitrary decision-making by officials as it fails to adequately define terms or set clear guidelines, and it creates burdensome and expensive registration and reporting processes that will particularly disadvantage grassroots citizens' associations and groups," the letter says.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW's Asia division, said the Hun Sen government was seeking to stifle the one clear source of opposition to the government, having reduced the opposition to rump status and cowed the international community.

"Hun Sen is growing increasingly sensitive to critical NGO voices which are working with local people facing dispossession of their land for commercial use for cash crops such as sugar cane," said Robertson. "There has been a plague of land seizures and it is an issue that goes to corrupt governance."

An estimated 30,000 people are driven from farmland or urban areas every year to make way for property developments or mining and agricultural projects.

The World Bank earlier this month suspended new lending to Cambodia in a dispute over the eviction of thousands of poor landowners to make way for a property development in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Two thousand people have been evicted already and another 10,000 face eviction to make way for the project in the Boeung Kak lake area. The development is led by China's Inner Mongolia Erdos Hongjun Investment Corp, an unlisted firm that has pledged to spend $3bn in Cambodia on property, metal processing and power generation, and which has close ties to Hun Sen. Robertson said the Cambodian government has since agreed to put back on the table an onsite resettlement plan, which showed that international pressure can work.

"The lesson is when push comes to shove, when development partners threaten to take action, that kind of thing makes the Cambodian government sit up and take notice," he said.

The Cambodian government recently suspended a local NGO, the Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which has been working with communities affected by major projects in Phnom Penh, including the Asian Development Bank/USAid-funded railway rehabilitation project, and the Boeung Kak lake development.

The suspension, say human rights groups, shows how the Cambodian government may use the draft associations and NGO law if it is passed.

In other recent moves against critics, the government earlier this month closed down two newspapers reproachful of the Cambodian ruling party – the Water & Fire News, and the World News. Their publishing licences were revoked because of "a perceived insult to the ministry of information".

Five men have also been convicted of "provocation" for distributing pamphlets critical of the state. They revealed the Cambodian government's ties to the Vietnamese government and accused Hun Sen of selling land to foreign countries, calling him a "traitor" and a "puppet of Vietnam".

One of Asia's poorest countries, Cambodia receives between $50m and $70m a year from the World Bank. It is looking increasingly to China for aid and development. China is Cambodia's biggest source of foreign direct investment, with stated plans to spend $8bn on 360 different projects during the first seven months of 2011.


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