Too Much Discretion?: LANGO and NGO Regulation in Cambodia

by Nicole Cochran

October 14, 2015

International development aid has been criticized as ineffective. Billions of dollars flow into developing countries each year, and though this aid has helped make progress in poverty reduction, development projects sometimes fail spectacularly. In Cambodia, thirty percent of the government’s budget is comprised of donor assistance, and there are more than 1700 registered non-governmental organizations (NGOs), though less than 600 are active. The nonprofit sector plays an important role in Cambodia, filling in gaps in the government’s capacity to provide public goods.

While NGOs largely went unregulated in the past, this July the Cambodian government passed the Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organizations (LANGO), substantially increasing regulation of the nonprofit sector and sparking protests as a result. The Cambodian government claims that the law is necessary to ensure that NGOs and associations are conducting legitimate activities and are not receiving funds from terrorist organizations. However, domestic and international NGOS, along with the E.U., U.N., and U.S., condemn the law over concerns about the potential for government abuse of power and violations of Constitutionally-guaranteed rights of free speech, free assembly, and participation in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Opponents of the law also argue that existing criminal and anti-terrorism laws are sufficient to accomplish LANGO’s purported objectives.

It is not uncommon for other countries to regulate NGOs; however, LANGO has caused substantial concern in the nonprofit sector and international community for a variety of reasons. Among these is the mandatory requirement that all associations and NGOs be registered or have a memorandum of understanding with the proper authorities. Unrecognized foreign or domestic NGOs and their staffs may face criminal prosecution for unauthorized activities. Shockingly, the government can deport the staff of foreign NGOs conducting activities without authorization.

Furthermore, there is concern that registration and reporting requirements are too burdensome on NGOs to the extent that grassroots organizations may be unable to meet the requirements and cease to operate. This, coupled with the broad discretion afforded to Cambodian ministries, has generated disquiet that LANGO could lead to arbitrary or politically motivated denials or revocations of recognition. In particular, the relevant ministries have the power to refuse recognition, de-register, or terminate MOUs for organizations or activities that “endanger the security, stability and public order or jeopardize national security, national unity, culture, traditions, and customs of Cambodian national society.” Moreover, all associations and NGOs are required to maintain political neutrality. Those that fail to do so can face criminal prosecution.

Ultimately, the nonprofit sector and international community believe that the burdens placed on associations and NGOs violate the constitutionally guaranteed right to assembly, and that the requirement of political neutrality and broad discretion to grant or revoke legal recognition could result in violations free speech rights.

Given the extensive flow of funds into development projects, the government may be justified in regulating NGOs. Developed nations themselves regulate the nonprofit sector, and there are parallels between LANGO and regulations in other countries. However, given Cambodia’s propensity for corruption and lack of transparency, the sweepingly broad discretion conferred upon the government’s executive branch is worrisome. As written, the law creates opportunities for corruption and violation of individual rights. NGOs that have operated previously without issue may be forced to close their doors. The effects, not just on civil society, but also on Cambodian society as a whole, could be substantial and could result in the cessation of vital services to the poor.

Nicole Cochran is a JD-MPP candidate at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.