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The Draft Law on NGO and Associations – a Potential Barrier to Promoting RtoP in Cambodia?

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on August 19, 2011
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The ECCC commenced the initial hearings of Case 002 on 27th June 2011, the second of the four cases before the court against the senior Khmer Rouge officials for the crimes committed between 1975 and 1979. The tribunal was jointly established by the Cambodian government and the UN with the aim to provide justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge. This corresponds with the ethos of the responsibility to protect (RtoP) – civilian protection. Although the RtoP is now primarily conceived as a preventative mechanism, rebuilding constitutes a crucial component of the RtoP continuum proposed by the ICISS and transitional justice is an essential tool for rebuilding. Moreover, the ECCC trials also exemplify how Pillars I and II of the RtoP can be operationalise, not necessarily in its own name. The Cambodian government fulfills its responsibility to protect its people by holding ex-Khmer Rouge leaders accountable for their crimes, and the international community contributes by assisting Cambodia building its capacity. Repeated reports of political interference in the ECCC trials have proved the need to further diffuse the RtoP in Cambodia. With regard to the assisting role of the international community, the UN began to provide assistance to the Cambodian judiciary through training and counseling programs as early as 1993. The hybrid model of the ECCC provides the Cambodian personnel of the court with experience of international justice standards.

The RtoP is still a contested notion in the Asia – Pacific, and Cambodia is categorized as a fence-sitter by Bellamy and Davies (2009). Credible local actors are thus needed to facilitate the diffusion of the RtoP in Cambodia. Civil society organizations (CSOs) including NGOs are a potential option given their commitment and contribution to the ECCC trials. They lobbied for a measure of justice for the victims even before the negotiations on the ECCC were started. Since the ECCC became operational in 2006, they have provided legal and psychological counseling and assistance to civil parties that participate in the trials as witnesses. In addition, NGOs such as DC-Cam documented the statements and stories of survivors and victim families to commemorate the loss. On the one hand, CSOs empower the people to reduce their vulnerability for abuses by the state, while on the other hand they serve as the checking force on the government’s behaviors.

The middle position of CSOs provides the flexibility to operate as a bridge of communication between the government and the public. However, the draft NGO law has caused wide concerns of CSOs that their activities of will be hindered by due to the mandatory and complex registration, lack of safeguard against arbitrary decision-making, and absence of appeal channel for denied applications. These restrictions are likely to result in the decline in the number of CSOs and retreat of their activities. With regard to the impact on RtoP in Cambodia, it will means less help to empower the people and weaker checking on the government. Although the government has sought the comments of CSOs on the draft law, there are complains that some of the key concerns are not addressed. If the draft law turns into legislation, the promotion of RtoP will probably be affected.

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