By Thin Lei Win
BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Ten international human rights groups have raised concerns in a letter about a draft law in Cambodia which they say will allow the government to shut down aid agencies.
The letter addressed to the heads of 17 U.N. agencies, urged them to press the Cambodian government not to enact the law, which is being considered by the Council of Ministers, and to think about a funding freeze for programmes involving state agencies if the law is adopted in its current form.
Cambodia relies on foreign aid to cover as much as 60 percent of its spending.
"As written, (the law) will allow the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) to intimidate and potentially shut down local, national, and foreign NGOs, associations, and informal groups that criticise the government or government officials," said the letter sent on Friday.
It was signed by groups including Global Witness, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Southeast Asian Press Alliance.
Some of the concerns about the proposed law relate to all the red tape it would create and expensive requirements that will make it difficult for grassroots organisations to register as non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
It will also make it more difficult for civil society groups to ensure transparency and accountability in government and donor-funded projects, the letter added.
"This draft law violates core human rights and will severely damage participatory, grassroots development efforts that are so critical for Cambodia's future," Phil Robertson, deputy director at Human Rights Watch Asia Division, said in a statement.
There has been growing tension in the Southeast Asian country between the government and a burgeoning civil society which has become openly critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Last month the Phnom Penh Post reported that the Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry had warned an umbrella organisation of 88 NGOs over critical letters it sent to international donors funding a $142-million railway project.
The government also suspended a land rights NGO that signed the letter for allegedly inciting villagers to protest against the railway project and summoned another to meet with officials.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen)