Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Monday, April 11, 2011

Donors Asked to Withhold Aid Over Proposed Law in Cambodia

By SETH MYDANS - The New York Times - Asia Paciic
Published: April 7, 2011

BANGKOK — A proposed law to control nongovernmental groups in Cambodia threatens to silence some of the last independent voices in an increasingly repressed nation, a group of leading international human rights agencies said Thursday.

Calling the proposal “the most significant threat to the country’s civil society in many years,” the agencies urged foreign nations and aid groups to oppose the law, which they said would undermine much of the nation-building work the donors have supported at a cost of billions of dollars.

The measure, which is moving toward enactment by Parliament, would for the first time require nongovernmental organizations of all types and sizes to register and to follow complex reporting procedures. The law would give the government new leverage to shut down any group it considers to be opposed to it.

Human rights advocates said the law would cap a long process during which Prime Minister Hun Sen has imposed controls over his political opponents, the security forces and the judiciary, leaving the independent groups and civil society the country’s only independent voices.

“Should this law pass as it is currently formulated, the survival of each and every N.G.O. in Cambodia will be at the whim of the government,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, referring to nongovernmental agencies that monitor and act on areas like human rights, legal affairs, the environment, land issues, public health and the role and rights of women.

“Emboldened by the legitimacy that they believe a law gives to abusive behavior, the government is likely to use the N.G.O. law to silence its people and to tighten its control on their daily lives,” he said. “The international community needs to act now, or Cambodia will continue in its march away from democracy and toward autocracy.”

Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness, an independent rights monitoring group, said the proposed law was a test of the commitment of donor nations and international agencies to the future of the civil society they had worked for two decades to foster.

“If the donors stand by while the government adopts this law, they cannot in good conscience claim to be working in the interests of Cambodia’s development objectives,” he said.

Despite Cambodia’s continuing pressures on human rights and its failure to control corruption, illegal logging and an epidemic of sometimes violent land seizures by powerful interests, international financial support for Mr. Hun Sen’s government has continued to increase.

At their most recent annual conference last June, donor nations and international agencies pledged $1.1 billion in aid for this year, a record amount, up from $950 million last year, despite widespread criticism that much of the money was misspent or diverted.

The aid is equal to roughly half the country’s official budget. In principle, it gives the international community leverage to maintain or strengthen basic freedoms and democratic institutions.

The amount has risen even as Cambodia’s economy has steadied itself and begun to grow, and even as China has matched Western donors with its own financial support, which comes unencumbered by the human rights conditions imposed by the West.

In December 2009, China awarded Cambodia $1.2 billion in aid and soft loans. That pledge came immediately after Cambodia deported 20 ethnic Uighur refugees to China over the strong objections of the United States and the United Nations, which called the deportation a violation of human rights.

“It must be remembered that the freedoms of association, expression and assembly in Cambodia are already heavily restricted, particularly at the community level,” said one of Cambodia’s oldest human rights groups, Licadho, in a separate report last week on the proposed law.

In their statement on Thursday, the international human rights agencies said that the strict financial conditions of the proposed law would disproportionately affect small groups with limited resources operating at the local level, “making them vulnerable to prosecution for carrying out legitimate activities without the proper legal status.”

The agencies voiced concern over what they called a lack of safeguards and meaningful judicial review mechanisms and pointed to the vague wording regarding a right of appeal of government sanctions.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, “Cambodia’s proposed law could too easily be used to refuse registration or close down organizations that serve the public interest.”

“Over the past 20 years, the development of civil society has been one of Cambodia’s few enduring achievements,” he said. “This law threatens to reverse that progress.”

In the early 1990s, Cambodia emerged from two decades of civil war and mass killings by the Khmer Rouge, which left the country brutalized, without an educated class or civic institutions.

As part of a $2 billion nation-building effort, the United Nations established democratic forms of government and introduced standards of human rights that soon became a part of political discourse.

The concept and practice of human rights and political freedoms grew hand in hand with the introduction of the nongovernmental organizations that are now under threat.

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