International civil society groups have called on foreign governments to demand that the Cambodian government address its deteriorating human rights record and restore democracy as the country’s “Everything but Arms” trade tariff breaks are set to be partially revoked next month.
The suspension will go into effect on August 12 in response to the Cambodian government’s “serious and systematic violations” of international human and labor rights conventions. But the royal government has repeatedly accused the EU of using the threat of EBA cuts to advance its political agenda in support of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
On July 21, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and 32 other international civil society organizations urged 13 foreign governments to echo the EU in its call for Cambodia to reverse its deteriorating human rights situation.
The NGOs asked that Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the US echo the EU’s demand that the Cambodian government take concrete actions to address the human rights situation in the country.
However, a Justice Ministry spokesman emphasized that the organizations’ appeal has no influence on Cambodia as the country is upholding its own laws as a sovereign nation.
In the HRW statement, the groups demand the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, including activists, human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition, including former opposition leader Kem Sokha.
“We urge your government to call on the Cambodian government to comply with its obligations under international human rights law and to support the EU in its efforts to bring respect for human rights, rule of law, and democracy to the Cambodian people,” the statement says.
“The Cambodian government should take meaningful measures that reverse the deterioration of Cambodia’s human rights situation in order to restore trade preferences or lift suspensions of bilateral aid,” it continues.
The statement underlined the fact that the government has continued to crack down on civil society, independent media, the political opposition and human rights defenders to silence its critics, including by adopting laws that restrict human rights.
The rights groups added that the state of democracy had also worsened in the country, as CNRP leader Kem Sokha remains banned from politics and is currently on trial for what rights groups say are unsubstantiated treason charges. The CNRP was dissolved in November
2017, eight months before a national election which was subsequently dominated by the ruling CPP.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said July 24 that the call from the civil society organizations has no influence over the government, noting that HRW operates without professionalism.
“They are taking revenge on the royal government,” he said.
“What they have raised in the past is baseless without evidence and they used their emotions to attack the government,” Malin added.
He said that Cambodia follows its own laws to manage the country and uphold sovereignty.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh said via email on July 22 that the United States has consistently raised concerns about human rights and democracy in Cambodia and urged the government to take steps to reopen the political and civic space.
“We support the Cambodian people and their constitutional right to democracy and fundamental freedoms,” embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier said.
Camilla Monsine Ottosson, first secretary for democracy, human rights and the labour market at the Swedish embassy said via email on July 24 that as a member state of the EU, Sweden stands with the union in its call for Cambodia to respect human rights.
“Sweden has on numerous occasions and at different levels brought up deep concern regarding the situation in Cambodia,” Monsine Ottosson said.
She pointed to Sweden’s ongoing cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia as well as civil society, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, and representatives of the Cambodian government.
Monsine Ottoson also said that in June, the Swedish government had decided to focus its development cooperation on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Cambodia through support to civil society and international organizations.
“The EU and Sweden as a member of the EU expect Cambodia to respect its obligations and commitments as stipulated in conventions ratified by Cambodia,” she said.
On February 12 the European Commission decided to partially suspend Cambodia’s EBA preferences following a yearlong process of ‘enhanced engagement’ between the EU and Cambodia during which the Cambodian government was given opportunities to make progress.
However, the commission concluded that Cambodia had failed to take necessary measures to retain full EBA benefits. The upcoming suspensions will affect 20 percent of apparel imports, 30 percent of footwear imports, and all travel goods imports.
A joint letter issued last month by the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, Cambodia Footwear Association (CFA) and
the European Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia (EuroCham) called for a 12-month delay in the withdrawal of the EBA tariff breaks, saying the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the Cambodian garment sector.
Some 256 Cambodian garment and footwear factories have halted operations, the letter says, with most of the country’s remaining factories operating at reduced capacity. It goes on to say that more than 130,000 garment workers have lost their jobs, a number that the groups say will continue to rise should the EBA agreement be partially revoked.
The letter emphasized that the economic effects of the Covid-19 outbreak combined with the revocation of EBA had already led to buyers cancelling orders for the rest of the year.
“This has had a very negative impact, of course,” it said. “What has received less attention are the orders that have now not been given for the second and third quarter of 2020.”
Meas Soksensan, a spokesman at the Ministry of Economy and Finance said July 27 that the government was disappointed in the EU’s decision to partially suspend tariff breaks.
“We have just wanted a decision based on the truth that reflects the facts of the situation,” he said. “We can say that a decision [by the EU] is part of a political agenda.”
“It does not mean that we are not concerned, because the Economy and Finance Minister has an obligation to ensure macro-economic growth,” Soksensan said.
He said that the ministry had predicted a shock to the economy since the EU first announced it planned to cut preferential tariffs to Cambodia in 2018, and the ministry has since been preparing a budget that would account for the impact.
“We are trying to help workers but we have also helped employers so that they will have the possibility to shift their production operations to other places,” Soksensan said.
He explained that the royal government is considering how to re-employ the workers who will suffer due to the EBA cuts, and is also hopeful that the market will adjust to produce goods that would not be affected by the tariff break reduction.
Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said via Telegram on July 28 that the government is working on something that will counteract the effects of the EU’s partial tariff suspension next month.
“We are busy with a matter bigger than EBA, and it is better than EBA,” he said, declining to explain further.
He was seemingly referring to Cambodia’s recently concluded free trade agreement (FTA) with China, which will provide greater market access for Cambodian products and benefit both nations, the Commerce
Ministry said on July 21 after the two sides finalized talks, according to a report by Xinhua.
“The successful conclusion of the negotiations for the FTA in a short time has clearly reflected the commitment of the two countries’ leaders to building closer ties, and this FTA will provide a lot of socio-economic benefits to the two peoples,” the ministry said in a press release.
During a press conference on July 28 to mark the conclusion of the China-Cambodia FTA talks, Commerce Ministry Secretary of state Sok Sopheak said the new agreement would be hugely beneficial for Cambodia.
“At the same time, China will restore our [economy] regardless of EBA, but please judge for yourself,” he said.
“We have not thought that it [the FTA] will replace EBA,” Sopheak said.
“It does not replace it. If they have suspended sugar and garment imports into Europe, then we would say that it is the replacement, but it is not like that because China also produces those things,” he said.
Last year, Cambodia exported goods to China worth $1 billion, according to the ministry.
Sopheak said that under the new FTA, Cambodia would be able to export nearly 340 types of goods to China tariff-free.
Regardless of economic damages, local rights groups say the EU’s concerns should be taken seriously.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights said this week that he agreed with the EU’s concerns over human rights, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom to express political views in Cambodia.
He said that as Cambodia is suffering due to the global Covid-19 crisis, it is essential that the royal government preserve the EBA scheme by addressing the issues raised by the EU.
“We have seen some factories shutting down and gradually suspending operations, while the tourism sector has faced a severe collapse due to the Covid-19 crisis,” Tola said.
“Cambodia’s economy will get worse if the government ignores these steps required to maintain the 20 percent [tariff breaks] from the EU,” he said.
Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at civil rights group Adhoc, said July 28 that the royal government’s decision to ignore the EU’s demand shows that it intends to continue its path of rights abuses.
“As of now, we have seen no positive signs that the royal government intends to reopen free space and respect human rights yet,” he said.
He said the situation was declining, pointing to the government’s recent arrests of activists and members of the opposition party, as well as the ongoing trial of former opposition leader Kem Sokha.
“When they have succeeded to withdraw [20 percent of] EBA it means that Cambodia has clearly indicated that it has no respect for human rights and democracy, and it will impact [the country’s] reputation on the international stage,” Senkaruna said.
“We are concerned about all those matters and the resulting social crisis that will happen as workers become unemployed,” he said.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said this week that the royal government will choose to ignore pressure from the EU, particularly because the ruling CPP will not allow opposition voices in politics after the CNRP had garnered about 3 million votes in the 2013 national election.
“If the government followed the EU’s demands, it would mean the CPP would risk its reputation by reviving former opposition party leaders, who had about 3 million people supporting them,” he said.
According to the EU, Cambodia is the second-largest beneficiary of the EBA trade preference plan, accounting for more than 18 percent of EBA imports into the EU last year.
EU imports from Cambodia totaled €5.3 billion (about $5.8 billion) in 2018, 95 percent of which entered duty-free under the deal, the EU said.
It added that clothing and textiles accounted for around three-quarters of the imports.
According to the World Bank, Cambodia stands to lose as much as $650 million of the trade if the EBA were to be suspended in full.