EU on Labor and Human Rights in Cambodia

A delegation of the European Union and the European External Action Service (EEAS) was in Cambodia from 5th to 11th of July 2018 with the goal of evaluating the country’s status following recent disturbing developments in its human and labor rights.

The European Union monitoring mission carried out an assessment into where the country stands on compliance with human and labor rights obligations as dictated in the EU-Cambodia preferential trade deal.

While in the country, the EU delegation met with a number of members of the Cambodian government, the United Nations (EU) representatives, International Labor Organization (ILO) representatives, and trade unions, businesses, and civil society.

The Relationship between EU and Cambodia

The EU is associated closely with Cambodia under the structure of the EU-ASEAN Cooperation Agreement focused on ensuring a conducive environment for trade and investment relations. Cambodia has been a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 2004. The country is considered a Least Developed Country (LDC) and hence benefits from the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, the most favorable regime available under EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP). EBA allows the 47 LDCs – Cambodia included – duty-free access to EU for export of all products save ammunition and arms. However, the country can only enjoy this privilege if it is compliant with the collective list of international humanitarian standards that include labor, political and civil rights, as well as the Convention against Torture. Cambodia’s government is seen as wanting in most of these compliance requirements, hence the EU’s involvement in an assessment of the country’s labor and human rights compliance.

EU Mission Held Only Days before Cambodian National Elections

The EU mission could not have come at a better time. Cambodia, only days away from its national elections to be held on 29th July, will become a one-party state led by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

An Opposition Dissolved, and Voices Silenced

In the past year, the opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been dissolved by multiple courts in the country. Party leader Kem Sokha is currently imprisoned following false charges of treason. His forerunner, former longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy has been in exile since 2015 when he, too, was convicted on fallacious charges.

The government has further taken control of media in the country. Independent newspapers that have not been bankrupted by the government have been silenced. Radio stations have been instructed against broadcasting independent newscasts, and reporters have been sent behind bars for espionage because of providing inside information to a foreign news organization. It is not only the CNRP and the media who have been seemingly paralyzed but also anyone else who speaks out for victims of a lack of compliance with human and labor rights by the government.

In June 2018, Human Rights Watch published a 200-page report that documented various serious abuses by twelve senior Cambodian generals. These allegations were quickly disregarded by Prime Minister Hun Sen who would not allow the UN to conduct an inquiry into his generals.

EU Takes Initiative Slightly Late

Cambodian democracy has been in trouble for years, and the European Union has been slow to react to the country’s situation. However, on 16th November 2017, the Union’s high representative Federica Mogherini released a statement that emphasized that the enforced dissolution of the CNRP was a major move in the wrong direction, far from the path of democracy and pluralism in the country. She added that the electoral process from which the main opposition party had been excluded was “not legitimate” and “disenfranchised” its supporters. In 2013, during the legislative election, the opposition CNRP had received 45% of the votes and in 2017’s local election, they received 44%. In the month that followed, the EU suspended its financial assistance to Cambodia’s National Election Committee. There has yet to be any positive development in the country despite the change.

Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, who’s been in power for more than three decades, now is one of the world’s five longest-serving autocrats. Sen personally controls most of the country’s institutions such as the courts, army, parliament, police, and electoral body. The EU began taking steps to salvage the state of affairs in February 2018: the 28 foreign ministers denounced the country’ situation, threatening to implement targeted sanctions if the state did not improve.

More importantly, the EU asked the commission to enhance monitoring of Cambodia’s compliance with human rights and fundamental freedoms of its workers. This influences whether the country is granted EU trade preferences through the EBA scheme. This came after a strong European Parliament resolution in December last year that called on the commission to withdraw trade preferences in the short term if the Cambodian government was discovered as non-compliant with the obligations.

Will EU Suspend Trade Deal with Cambodia?

Unfortunately for Cambodia, the EU does have substantial leverage and influence over the country. Given the EU is the country’s second-biggest trading partner after the United States, Cambodia would be playing a losing game by continuing to sever ties with the EU. In 2017, the total trade between EU and Cambodia equaled €5.86 billion. Cambodia benefits the most from the association, making roughly €5 billion in exports to the EU.

The risk of losing preferential status with the EU has proven worrisome even to some of Cambodia’s businesspeople. The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), for instance, representing Cambodia’s roughly 600 garment and footwear industries say they’re worried about the effects on the industry if the EU and US revise or remove trade preferences for the country.

A Cambodian government delegation was in Brussels the week prior to the EU’s visit to try and lobby a softer approach to the matter. Despite this, Cambodia’s human rights and labor compliance records are too dire to be saved by diplomacy. The UN and other labor compliance and human rights groups have been fighting a fruitless battle against the Cambodian government. The Cambodian government’s lack of compliance with the EBA and continued dismantling of the Law could cost the country its treasured benefits of trade as EU members.

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