Visiting European parliamentarian Cecilia Wikström hit out at the Cambodian government last week, stating that it was “totally” to blame for alleged land rights abuses surrounding the sugar industry.
Cecilia Wikström, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, met last week with senior officials, opposition leaders, NGOs and local villagers affected by forced evictions in three provinces out of concern that European Union trade preferences under the “Everything but Arms” initiative were fuelling human rights abuses.
“The sugar issue in this country is a ‘blood sugar’ story,” Wikström said.
She argued that it was “easy to conclude” from her visit that human rights provisions of the EBA initiative have been misused in Cambodia, after she met with villagers from Kampong Speu and Koh Kong provinces who said they had been forced off their land to make way for huge sugar plantations connected to ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat.
While she said the sugar industry should take partial blame for the allegations, she said: “I blame totally and even more [than the industry] the authorities that are allowing this to happen. It is the authorities in this country ... that give concessions to the sugar companies, concessions for 99 years. This is incredible and has to be addressed.
“So what we need to see is a thorough investigation on the compliance with human rights provisions set up in the EBA programme,” she added.
She cautioned, however, that she was on an unofficial visit, and any proposal to suspend trade preferences under EBA would “be a long process”.
“But one thing is for sure: The European Union has committed to specific moral standards and provisions concerning human rights, and when they are severely violated – as I have experienced in this country – we need to address it accordingly,” Wikström said, adding that she would be willing to return as part of an official delegation. She also noted that the government had failed to follow-up on a promise to the EU delegation in Phnom Penh to investigate the allegations.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, defended the government’s land concessions. “Do we have a mandate to report everything to everyone?” he said.
“The majority of people living down there, they accept the solution [to disputes] from the private company,” Phay Siphan said, adding that others should take their claims to the courts.
“We [survived the] genocidal [Khmer Rouge] regime together… If you compare this time to the old time I think we do better,” he said.
Cambodia began benefiting from the EBA in 2001, but full liberalisation of trade preferences for sugar imports from low-income countries did not come into effect until October 2009, when a guaranteed minimum price for the commodity was also introduced – boosting the industry in Cambodia.