Image Source: Xiengyod
REGION: East Asia and the Pacific

In “Governing Civil Society in Cambodia: Implications of the NGO Law for the ‘Rule of Law,’” Melissa Curley examines the effects of Cambodia’s recent Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organizations (“the NGO law”) in terms of freedom of speech, funding from foreign donors, and press independence. Ultimately, Curley argues that this law was created with the specific intent to promote rule by law for the gain of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the current governing political party in Cambodia. She does so by providing evidence and examples of the CPP’s politically oppressive implementation of the law, as well as providing general context for the law’s usage as it relates to international aid and funding.

The CPP has a history of oppressing dissenting political views. In the 2010s, they imprisoned members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and forced the closure of the CNRP-supported newspaper and radio station. The author argues that the CPP has consistently weaponized political power against its enemies and that the NGO Law serves to continue this trend of political oppression.

The 2015 passage of the NGO Law gave the Cambodian government significantly more control over what NGOs are able to do. However, the author asserts that the government now has far too much power over their actions and, due to vague requirements in the NGO Law and a justice system that lacks independence, this power will likely remain unchecked. Cambodia’s government contains internal checks on abuses of power, such as anti-corruption units. However, the judiciary as a whole is considered by the international community as subservient to the CPP, making politically motivated rulings and failing to act as a check on the CPP’s power.

One of the most controversial actions of the CPP in recent years has been its seizing of land without due compensation. In response, various NGOs made attempts to combat these actions by educating Cambodians on their land rights and helping them pay their legal fees, actions the CPP deemed as “inciting popular protest” and, under the NGO Law, punishable offenses. Curley notes that the controversy surrounding this “was likely one motivating factor for the government to draft the NGO Law in the same year.”

The Cambodian government is able to wield such power via the NGO Law as a result of vague provisions concerning neutrality and national security, as well as burdensome aspects of its reporting requirement. The NGO Law states the NGOs must “maintain their neutrality towards political parties in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” and it makes activities that “endanger national security” punishable offenses. The NGO Law includes terrorism under the rubric of activities that endanger national security, and Curley asserts that terrorism was likely included in an attempt to ensure the NGO Law could stand up to international scrutiny.

Also for purposes of international scrutiny, Curley argues the CPP has put significant effort into legitimizing the NGO Law by presenting it as a sign of progress in rule of law. Curley maintains that the responses of the CPP to international criticism have been swift and thoroughly planned out masking its purpose as a tool of political oppression.

The neutrality provision is the most widely abused requirement in the NGO law, according to Curley, and as such is an ominous threat for many NGOs that cannot be sure where the line is drawn. One striking example was when the CPP shut down the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Cambodia in 2017. The Cambodian government stated that the NDI, as well as multiple other NGOs—foreign and domestic—were working with the CNRP to “incite opposition and protest against the CPP,” violating the neutrality provision.

NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

Governing Civil Society in Cambodia: Implications of the NGO Law for the “Rule of Law”

Highlighted Publications

Western Hemisphere

Exploring the Local Organizational Response to Venezuelan Migrants in Colombia

Europe and Eurasia
Image Source: Doyle Stevick

How Can Schools Promote Rule of Law Norms in Transitioning Societies? Lessons from Post-Communist Europe

Europe and Eurasia
Image Source: Atroszko

Considering the Role of Security Sector Reform and Police Reform when Tackling Organized Crime in Post-Conflict Environments