A key donor to the Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition (CHRAC) has suspended its funding, citing operational concerns even as other revenue sources are seemingly drying up for the organisation.
Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) on Wednesday decided to freeze its $35,000 annual funding to CHRAC after conducting an independent assessment of the NGO’S activities, according to country director Aksel Steen-Nilsen.
Steen-Nilsen said the assessment was “routine” but was unwilling to say which aspects of the assessment had led to the decision to suspend funding. He did say that CHRAC had been given 30 days to rectify the issues identified by NPA.
“If they regain our trust, CHRAC is always an organisation we would be willing to fund,” Steen-Nilsen said yesterday. He later said that NPA funds accounted for 13 per cent of CHRAC’s total budget.
While NPA would not identify specific areas of concern, numerous observers, CHRAC donors among them, last month voiced concern over the organisation’s involvement in a land dispute between CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company and evictees from Yong Phat’s Kampong Speu economic land concession.
CHRAC secretary-general Suon Bunsak, who was at the heart of that controversy, yesterday told a reporter to call back later when asked for comment on the NPA’s decision, but did not answer subsequent phone calls.
However, the Post obtained a copy of an invitation to a meeting at CHRAC’s offices next Wednesday emailed by Bunsak yesterday to 27 civil society organisations. That invite makes no mention of the NPA decision to suspend aid. Rather, it promises clarification over questions raised in Post articles about Bunsak’s involvement in the Kampong Speu land dispute.
CHRAC’s steering committee is to hold a meeting to discuss NPA’s funding freeze at the organisation’s offices today, according to In Kea, acting president of human rights NGO Adhoc, which currently chairs the committee. He declined to comment further until the meeting had taken place.
Alongside NPA, German NGO the Heinrich Boll Foundation (HBF) completed its $10,135 project with CHRAC last month, according to HBF finance manager Sopheap Ken. HBF country director Dr Ali al Nasani has previously said no further projects are planned with CHRAC.
Come October, another $35,000 of funding will dry up for CHRAC as German Cooperation and Development Ministry-funded GIZ winds up its project with the organisation, according to GIZ country director Adalbert Eberhardt.
Eberhardt insisted that the decision to terminate the project – which relates to the Khmer Rouge tribunal – was reached in February of this year and has nothing to do with CHRAC’s activities in Kampong Speu, but instead was the first stage of a general winding down of tribunal-related activity.
Read more: Sugar company's compensation deals leave families bitter in Kampong Speu
Once GIZ funding ends, CHRAC’s only remaining large-scale donors will be Oxfam and the European Union.
Oxfam currently donates $50,000 a year to CHRAC, according to country director Solinn Lim, who said that her NGO had been cooperating with CHRAC for less than a year. She declined to comment on whether funding would be renewed next year.
The European Union currently funds CHRAC as part of a three-year project beginning in January of last year with British freedom of expression NGO Article 19. A statement by EU Ambassador George Edgar said that the total three-year grant was €452,600 (about half a million dollars).
Article 19 director of programs David Diaz-Jogeix said yesterday that he was unable to divulge how much of the funding was earmarked directly for CHRAC without permission from the European Commission, but did say that permission had been applied for.
Ambassador Edgar said the EU was aware of NPA’s assessment and had been in contact with Article 19 about it. “We will be following up this issue further,” he said.
Former CHRAC employee Billy Tai estimated, based on the most recent financial information he had seen, that once GIZ funding dries up in October, CHRAC will have lost 60 per cent of its non-EU funding.
Now a legal consultant, Tai was an advisor to CHRAC from January 2013 to February 2015 and continued to work through the end of that year on a contract basis.
“It’s possible CHRAC feels it has a strong, China-esque backer in the European Union, with a project too big to fail,” Tai said, comparing CHRAC’s relationship with donors to the Cambodian government’s. “It’s possible they’ll hit them [the EU] up for more money.
“I think the EU’s position will be that funding will not change.”
Tai said that terms for the Article 19 project took nine months to negotiate.
“There were protracted negotiations in terms of how much of the pot CHRAC would get,” Tai said. “Especially in terms of management salary, this was a big contention.”
“How they react will define CHRAC as an organisation,” Tai said.
Additional reporting by Bun Sengkong