PHNOM PENH — Accused of organizing an “insurrection” last year, nearly a dozen Parliament ministers from the political opposition were sentenced to prison terms from 7 to 20 years by a Phnom Penh court this summer. The charge stemmed from demonstrations held in July 2014, rallying the opposition to end the national ban on public gatherings.
In a joint statement published right after the sentencing, 13 civil society organizations working in Cambodia condemned it.
Now civil society in Cambodia finds itself in serious jeopardy as the National Assembly and the Senate passed a law in July, blandly titled “Law on Associations and NGOs,” requiring all associations and nongovernment organizations to register with the government and to be “politically neutral.”
Such a restriction is a violation of international human-rights law and could dry up modes of free expression and assembly in the country, a route that dozens upon dozens of other governments are taking as they squeeze the rights of civil society, including in China, Egypt, India and Russia, notably. It’s a list of nations that the United Nations human rights commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said has grown far too long to compile.
In some countries, the notion of the public standing up for its rights is nonexistent. But the phenomenon of restricting civil society is not relegated only to repressive societies. In Britain, for example, surveillance of the rights group Amnesty International has become public knowledge; in the United States, mass surveillance by the government in the name of counterterrorism continues to be hotly debated.
How new and expanding restrictive laws, which have been promoted by countries for a wide range of reasons, play out will depend on a country’s politics. But few of the groups affected by the laws are welcoming the changes.
Yet bright spots prevail, not only in the open-minded model of Norway, for example, but also in the public’s use of social media and litigation. Amnesty International, for one, is widening its regular constituency to draft new supporters in Brazil, India and Mexico and other countries.
As Thomas Carothers, an expert on civil society at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an interview with PassBlue, small and large groups can create a variety of counternarratives to protect human rights and rule of law when these liberties are being suppressed or taken away.
Such suppression, however, acts in insidious, minute ways. In Cambodia, the new registration law was enacted in August; less than a week later, a representative for 69 families involved in a land dispute in the central region of the country was asked by the local police force to register the families with the Ministry of Interior before the group could continue action on its claim.
Forced registration with the Cambodian Ministry of Interior presents a broader problem, says the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a leading organization that defends universal human-rights principles. Chak Sopheap, the director, said, “Cambodian authorities are more concerned about silencing critical voices, rather than building on those to create a better country.”
Civil society in Cambodia is fighting the new law. As a member of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, a consortium regulating ethics and professionalism in the development sector, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights is part of a campaign called Stop & Consult to resist enactment of the law.
“We will continue exercising our role of watchdog, no matter the new challenges that [the law] will impose,” Chak Sopheap said in an interview. The center receives money from the European Union, the US Agency for International Aid (USAID) and the Open Society Foundations.
Legally, the Cambodian Constitution requires the regulation of nongovernment organizations, but that doesn’t mean it is viable internationally.
David Moore, the vice president of legal affairs with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, based in Washington, D.C., confirmed that “a compulsory registration requirement — especially one that is backed up by criminal penalties for unregistered groups — is a direct violation of international law.”
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Cambodia signed in 1992, Moore emphasized, recognizes that freedom of association includes the right to work freely without government consent.
According to the Washington center, more than 60 countries have proposed or passed restrictions to block civil society organizations from working freely. In the last decade, this trend has been affecting state-citizen relations negatively, Moore noted. Other experts say that censorship and blocking social media or graver acts like “disappearances” of human-rights defenders or killing journalists reaches far beyond 60 nations.
“These legal measures shrink the available legal space for civil society,” Moore added. “As others have noted, strong, stable countries need strong, stable civil societies. Legal impediments against civil society will eventually weaken not only independent CSOs [civil society organizations], but the country itself by undermining the ability to solve problems.”
Just think about the repercussions of such restrictions, said Maina Kiai, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
“The simple fact of joining with your fellow citizens to pursue a cause as a group makes you criminals, unless you register in advance,” Kiai said. “This is a clear violation of international law, and it lacks common sense. It’s frankly none of the government’s business, which is why freedom of association is a fundamental right.”
No government likes criticism, but Kiai also said that “a government isn’t really democratic unless it submits itself to open, honest and sometimes blunt criticism from the people it governs. Otherwise it’s just playing at democracy.”
Being required to show political neutrality is a main concern of nonprofit groups under the Cambodian law, as it has become recently for many foreign nonprofit groups operating in Russia, like the MacArthur Foundation, which has departed the country. When Cambodia started to consider drafting its law in 2010, nongovernment groups detected that it would confer excessive powers to government officials, building obstacles to the registration of organizations.
Restrictive registration laws can work against civil society in more internal ways, like weeding out stronger organizations and associations from lesser ones, encouraging them to compete with one another more for space in their environment.
It’s all about a country keeping control in coercive and other ways. Thomas Carothers, the director of the democracy and rule of law program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written extensively on the undermining of civil society internationally.
In his 2014 report, written with Saskia Brechenmacher, “Closing Space: International Support for Democracy and Human Rights Under Fire,” it notes that “Allowing international aid actors some leeway to carry out democracy and rights programs within their borders has typically been a way for semiauthoritarian governments to burnish their image abroad. But increasingly, when they come under stress, governments close the tap on that assistance.”
Billy Chia-Lung Tai, an independent human-rights consultant who works with Cambodian grassroots groups, looks at the situation in his country more specifically.
“Stating [that] the government feels civil society has too much freedom is a speculation,” he said. “The Cambodian government never engages with NGOs or CSOs. They let international donors do so. But they realized that CSOs can be dangerous, because they have developed many grassroots movements in the past decade.”
Indeed, most aid money to nonprofit groups can come with strings attached, so some governments contend that outside foreign entities threaten a country’s sovereignty.
Yet civil society can find ways to work around or oppose new restrictions. Carothers advised groups to use “alternative narratives” as to who the groups are and what they do. “Public image is often not very good,” he said, about grassroots entities, who are often viewed as troublemakers. So one approach could be to “invest more in public relations to position better themselves in society” when a group comes under pressure.
“It’s kind of a new thing, exploring counternarratives; people are talking a lot about it, how to change how they describe themselves,” he said.
Other nongovernment groups are trying to “forge effective coalitions,” Carothers said, aiming to develop stronger local partners or getting foreign funders to work with rich individuals in the country, he said. Some organizations are also forming informal coalitions to resist legislative changes. This approach, he said, “sometimes works, like in Kenya, but not in others.”
In Kenya, a new regulatory and administrative framework for nongovernment organizations is expected to come into force. Called the Public Benefits Organizations Act of 2013, it provides that a new body, to be called the Public Benefits Organizations Regulatory Authority, be established, but its implementation was halted when the government sought to amend the law to restrict external funding of NGOs.
The law states that every organization registered under the Act shall have the freedom to join in association with other organizations as desired. Anne Waiguru, who heads the Cabinet Secretary for Devolution and Planning in Kenya, told the press that the Act “contain[s] impeccable regulations for the sector,” and civil society is urging the government to allow the Act in its current form. A coalition of 40 nongovernment organizations recently managed to postpone the adoption of new amendments, stating in a declaration that they would create mistrust between them and the government.
Such direct dialogue with governments can indeed work. Emilie Domzee, a program manager for Ariadne, a private network that connects European donors and foundations supporting social change and human rights, said that “several coalitions have been created in the past 10 years to try and counter this threat against civil society and find more appropriate solutions.”
Working with regional and international institutions, such as the UN, is one prescription, though broadening the democratic sphere “takes time,” she said.
Clothilde Le Coz is an independent journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who specializes in social, political and human-rights issues. She is a media development consultant for the Cambodian Center for Independent Media and formerly worked as the Washington D.C. director for Reporters Without Borders. She has an M.A. in international relations and journalism and a B.A. in political science, both from SciencesPo in Grenoble, France. She also has a bachelor in philosophy from the Sorbonne.