Remarks by Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby at a Press Conference

As Prepared for Delivery
U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh
June 2, 2015

The United States has a strong relationship with the Cambodian people and is deeply interested in Cambodia’s success and continued development.

I have come to Cambodia to specifically look into the draft NGO law as well as other draft laws on trade union and cybercrime that are being considered by the Cambodian government. During my visit over the past two days, I have met with representatives of civil society and government to hear their thoughts on these laws and the process surrounding them.

Supporting civil society around the world is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama has emphasized the vital role of NGOs through his launch of the Stand with Civil Society initiative in September 2013 at the United Nations. And last year, he issued a presidential memorandum that calls on the U.S. government to support civil society around the world, especially in countries where it may be threatened. Consistent with President Obama’s directive, we are following the developments on the draft NGO law being considered by the Cambodian government closely from Washington, as we are doing in many other countries.

The Cambodian people are justifiably proud of the strong and vibrant civil society that exists in the country today. There are thousands of NGOs in this country working on a variety of important issues. These organizations boost Cambodia’s global image, build a solid foundation for the economy, and support peaceful, democratic development that benefits all Cambodians. They promote good governance, efficiency, and transparency – all critical elements of a healthy society.

Although the civil society organizations that advocate on political issues tend to receive the most attention, in fact most NGOs in Cambodia are focused on issues such as health, education, the environment, and community development. These NGOs play a vital role filling in where government funding for such services is limited, including in under-served communities. There is no doubt that the advances that Cambodia has achieved in recent years –a growing economy, improvements in health care and schools, progress in human rights, and more – is due in great part to the work of NGOs.

As U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power recently tweeted, a vibrant civil society is “key for prosperity as well as human rights.” When civil society is strong, the country is stronger. This is why we believe it is so important to hold a robust and fulsome debate on the draft law on associations and non-governmental organizations that the Cambodian government is considering, including whether such legislation is needed in the first place.

Based on what I heard during my visit, I have several concerns about the draft NGO law currently being considered by the Cambodian government – concerns which have been previously communicated by Ambassador Todd. I am concerned that the law currently under consideration has not been shared with the public so that civil society and the citizens of Cambodia can understand the impact it will have on them. I am concerned that there have not been recent consultations with civil society to hear their thoughts and recommendations on the law. And based on the last version of the law shared with the public in 2011, I am concerned that the law will impose restrictions or burdens on NGOs that will make it difficult or even impossible to do their crucial work.

In a meeting this morning, I shared these concerns with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Minister indicated to me several times that the law being considered by the government is intended to strengthen cooperation between the government and NGOs. We support such cooperation, but as I said to the Minister, we do not believe that a new NGO law is needed to accomplish that. It is my sincere hope that, if it is indeed decided that this legislation should move forward, that it will encourage and facilitate NGOs in the important work that they do, continuing Cambodia’s wise policy that has allowed civil society to grow and contribute to the country’s development.

As the Royal Government of Cambodia considers its next steps, I urge the government to reconsider whether an NGO law is in fact needed at this time, as there are already Cambodian laws on counterterrorism and criminal activity, as well as a civil code, that address the concerns this proposed legislation is intended to address. If it is deemed that this legislation is indeed in the public interest, I urge the Royal Government to make the draft legislation available to members of civil society and to the public as soon as possible and before it is introduced in the National Assembly. I also ask that civil society and the Cambodian people be afforded sufficient time for review and consultations on any legislation, so that they may then provide comment to their elected representatives before the legislation is voted on. Finally, I also urge that any draft legislation respect the internationally recognized freedoms of speech, association, and assembly – which Cambodia has committed to follow through its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — and not place undue restrictions on civil society’s ability to operate effectively and freely. I would urge that a similar process be followed for the proposed laws on trade unions and cybercrime – two other areas that will be critical to Cambodia’s long-term success.

As the debate over the NGO law continues, it is important to realize that the world is watching. Democratic governments may differ in form and process, but we are united in the belief that a strong, vibrant, and free civil society is a foundational part of any successful society. Any legislative process affecting the state of civil society or any other issue such as trade unions or the Internet should be transparent and accountable. And any change in the law that restricts rather than empowers civil society does not serve the best interests of the Cambodian people.