How credible is Hun Sen’s and Sam Rainsy’s new “culture of dialogue” when Cambodian citizens don’t have a say in laws affecting their lives?
Omar Ortez is the Senior Policy Advisor on Active Citizenship at Oxfam US. You can follow him on Twitter @omarortez1.
A campaign petitioning the Cambodian government to consult citizens on laws that constrain the space they need to operate and contribute to their country’s development was recently launched in Phnom Penh. Local rights groups concerned with this ongoing problem in their country welcomed United States Ambassador William E. Todd’s words reminding Cambodian government officials that the world is watching, and his urging for the release of the draft NGO law as well as for meaningful consultations to be conducted. They also applauded last week’s tweet from Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, endorsing the campaign:
Urge gov of Cambodia to rethink draft law to restrict NGOs, open civil society is key for prosperity as well as human rights #StopandConsult
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) May 14, 2015
From community based womens’ groups pulling their savings together to make rural businesses thrive, to students joining national youth associations to fight corruption in public schools, inclusive development in Cambodia benefits from a vibrant and active citizenry that contributes policy ideas, innovative approaches, and financial resources. National Development Plans win when this happens. Take public health as an example. The Cambodia’s National Immunization Program Strategic Plan 2008-2015 recognized civil society’s contributions to the 12% increase in full immunization coverage of children between 2005 and 2010. Efforts by civil society to hold local service providers accountable and that targeted their communication and outreach to the poorest groups were especially relevant in hard to reach localities.
But several laws are threatening to constrain the space these active citizens need in order to make such contributions to their country. The Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO) is the government’s most recent attempt to push legislation through without genuine and broad consultation. LANGO had been dormant since 2011 but quickly re-emerged a few weeks ago with Prime Minister Hun Sen signaling he wants it passed in May. Cambodians are concerned that the new “culture of dialogue,” much publicized by Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition Minority Leader Sam Rainsy, may only involve political leaders. “Culture of dialogue” has been the adopted tagline after their two respective parties, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), reached an agreement on electoral reforms in July 2014, but the crafting of the Amendments to the Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly (LEMNA) that followed the agreement lacked any consultation outside the two parties. As a result, this law now includes backward provisions on free speech and assembly, such as one that prohibits civil society from criticizing politicians during elections.
Similar concerns have been raised about three Judicial Reform Laws, which flew through parliament and senate approvals and quickly passed the scrutiny of the Constitutional Council in May of last year. Simply put, these laws give the executive a free hand to interfere in the judiciary. The Cybercrimes Law is also of concern – a leaked version last year revealed that the way offenses were characterized could criminalize legitimate expressions of opinion online. Student groups are uneasy. They worry that authorities intend to use such provisions to police and crack down on their human rights activism online.
Oxfam has joined Cambodian active citizens and is supporting the #StopandConsult campaign so that citizens can have a say on LANGO and all other laws that affect their civic and human rights. Enabling the environment civil society needs to operate is essential to achieving inclusive development outcomes in Cambodia.
- We are calling on CPP and CNRP to stop LANGO’s May rush;
- We encourage both parties to demonstrate their commitment to a real culture of dialogue by establishing a well-timed, meaningful and inclusive consultation process with civil society regarding LANGO and all laws affecting citizens’ spaces;
- We urge major donors (such as United States, European Union, Switzerland, Japan, and Australia) operating in Cambodia, international financial institutions (IMF and World Bank), and the United Nations to encourage the government of Cambodia (both the Executive and the National Assembly) to consult with their citizens on all laws that affect them.