Cambodia should act quickly to reverse rollbacks on democracy and human rights to avoid sanctions under a new regime adopted by the European Union that could jeopardize the Southeast Asian nation’s critical ties to the West, a rights campaigner said Tuesday.
On Monday, the EU announced that it had adopted a global human rights sanction regime that would allow for travel bans and the freezing of assets of individuals or entities deemed responsible for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and other serious human rights abuses. The framework also blocks access to EU funds.
The regime, which marks the first time the bloc has put in place such measures targeting international actors, is based on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act—a U.S. law named after a Russian corruption whistleblower who died in prison that calls for the seizure of assets and a U.S. travel ban for foreign officials who violate human rights.
On Tuesday, Moeun Tola, a Cambodia-based human rights defender and the executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) applauded the EU’s move in response to human rights abuses.
But he warned that if the EU, which has already suspended key trade preferences for Cambodia based on rights abuses, targets his nation with sanctions under the new regime its will severely impact its international reputation.
“If Cambodia is sanctioned by the EU under the new framework, not only will Cambodia have problems accessing the EU’s market, but also markets worldwide, while its alliance with the West will become strained,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Cambodia should hurry to effectively resolve human rights and democracy issues. [Cambodia] must build trust that it is making progress on the Paris Peace Accord and its constitution,” he said.
In September 2017, authorities arrested Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), over an alleged plot to overthrow the government with U.S. help. Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned his party in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan refused to comment on the EU’s move when contacted by RFA on Tuesday, saying he had not read the bloc’s statement, and referred questions to Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. RFA was unable to reach Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesman Kuy Kong for comment Tuesday.
The EU in August suspended tariff-free access to its market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme for around one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on democracy and human rights.
The suspension is expected to result in a loss of around U.S. $1.1 billion of the country’s annual U.S. $5.8 billion in exports to the EU, some 75 percent of which is made up of clothing and textiles—a crucial industry in Cambodia that employs one million people.
Hun Sen has shrugged off the move, but unions have warned that the reinstatement of tariffs on Cambodian exports to the EU could leave 80,000 workers from more than 1,000 garment factories in Cambodia jobless if buyers stop placing orders because of increased costs.
Last month, U.S. lawmakers called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for tougher U.S. action against Hun Sen, urging stronger diplomatic engagement and the imposition of targeted sanctions under the Magnitsky Act against senior leaders of the CPP responsible for repression of the CNRP.
The call came after Washington in September leveled sanctions against Chinese developer Union Development Group (UDG)—which is building the U.S. $3.8 billion-dollar Dara Sakor project including a seaport, resorts, and casinos in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province—under the Magnitsky Act for land grabs, rights abuses, and corruption in the country, prompting complaints from senior Cambodian leadership.
Try Pheap, a Cambodian business tycoon with close ties to Hun Sen, and Kun Kim, a former senior Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), were both sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in December last year for corruption.