Former Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha (center) arrives at Phnom Penh municipal court for his trial on Jan. 22. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
The European Union has withdrawn trade preferences for Cambodia worth almost US$1.1 billion under its Everything but Arms (EBA) policy in response to human rights violations in the aftermath of the 2018 national elections.
“The European Union will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed and free debate silenced,” said Josep Borrell, vice-president of the European Commission (EC).
“Today’s decision reflects our strong commitment to the Cambodian people, their rights and the country’s sustainable development. For the trade preferences to be reinstated, the Cambodian authorities need to take the necessary measures.”
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen initiated a crackdown on the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the lead-up to the last poll, alleging its leaders were fomenting a “color revolution” to overthrow his government.
CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason, while other leaders like Sam Rainsy fled into exile. Another118 senior CNRP officials were barred from politics for five years and the party dissolved by the courts.
NGOs were also curtailed, journalists arrested and independent news outlets closed or sold to government-friendly interests after being hit with exorbitant tax bills.
As a result Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) won every seat in the National Assembly, effectively ending a 25-year experiment with democracy which began with the arrival of United Nations peacekeepers amid an ongoing and long-running civil war.
Preferences favor industries like garments and grant Cambodian manufacturers low tariff access to EU markets under its EBA policy, but in return the government was expected to meet international standards on democratic issues including human rights.
Cambodia’s foreign affairs ministry said the decision was unjust.
“Despite grounded on the EU’s values and principles of human rights and democracy, the decision is politically driven and is devoid of objectivity and impartiality, two fundamental principles which are to be expected from the EC as a supranational body,” it said in a statement.
However, the withdrawal could have been worse. The EU said the move would affect about one fifth of goods exported under EBA, or US$1.09 billion worth of Cambodia’s current exports to Europe.
“The withdrawal of tariff preferences, and their replacement with the EU’s standard tariffs, will affect selected garment and footwear products and all travel goods and sugar,” it said.
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, urged international companies sourcing from Cambodia to step up pressure on the government so that it complies with its international human rights obligations.
“As the dictatorial leader of Cambodia, Hun Sen is responsible for the ruthless crackdown on dissent and human rights across the country, which forced the EU to follow its own rules and suspend some EU trade benefits,” Adams said.
“Hun Sen can get these preferences restored and show he cares about Cambodian workers by ending his assault on labor rights, the political opposition and fundamental freedoms.”