Cambodia: New law threatens freedoms of civil society organizations

Civil society organizations (CSOs) play a crucial role in democracies by representing the voice and needs of marginalized groups, and ensuring accountability on the part of the government.

In Cambodia, this role is being threatened by a new law that curbs the ability of CSOs to do their work and places restrictions on rights, such as the freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

The Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) is being condemned by CSOs across Cambodia, including several of Development and Peace’s partners, due to articles that place strict limits on the capacity of CSOs to speak out. CSOs could face severe sanctions for their actions, including de-registration and prohibitive fines.

Although Cambodia is a democracy, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has been in power since 1979, and its leader Hu Sen has been Prime Minister since 1998. In the last few years, groups have observed an increase in human rights abuses in the country, despite Cambodia being a signatory to several international human rights treaties.

The LANGO has been in the works since 2010. At the outset, it was aimed at formalizing the CSO sector in Cambodia. Since 2011, however, CSOs have become increasingly excluded from consultations and today, they feel that the law will be more of a tool to discredit and shut down groups that are critical of the government rather than make the CSO sector more effective in its work. 

Local and international groups have been protesting the lack of transparency and meaningful consultations in the drafting on this law, particularly in recent months as the law has moved quickly through several levels of government and was debated without the presence of opposition parties.

Most recently, the law was approved by the Senate despite a joint statement signed by many organizations, including Development and Peace and several of its partners in Cambodia, that called on the Senate to out-rightly reject the law, or at the very least to request modifications. The last step before the law comes into effect is assent from the king of Cambodia, which will most likely take place in the coming weeks.

“This is very troubling for our partners in Cambodia,” says Geneviève Talbot, Research and Advocacy Officer at Development and Peace. “Groups in Cambodia who are carrying out vital work, particularly among indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups who are facing issues like land grabbing, will be working in an atmosphere of fear and repression,” she added. “We hope that the international community will urge the Cambodian government to reconsider this law, which is a step backwards for democracy in the country.”

Sadly, the rights and freedoms of CSOs are being challenged in many parts of the world, including here in Canada, where several coalitions have been documenting how the democratic space of CSOs is shrinking.