Four days of high-level policy meetings between the European Union and Cambodia wrapped up in Brussels yesterday, after seeing “frank and in-depth exchanges” on a number of issues, including human rights, according to an EU press statement released last night.
“We discussed a broad spectrum of issues including human rights, trade and development,” said Ugo Astuto, director of South and Southeast Asia at the European External Action Service.
Ahead of the meeting of the Cambodia-EU Joint Committee, which last met in June 2012, local and international human rights groups had called for “urgent EU action” on the deteriorating rights situation in the Kingdom, urging the key donor bloc to use its sizable aid and influence as leverage against the government.
Last night’s statement, while largely devoid of specifics, said that dialogue in the sub-group dedicated to legal reform, governance and human rights was “candid and constructive and focused on concrete cooperation in the protection and promotion of Human Rights”.
“Freedom of expression and association, legal and judicial reform, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the situation of human rights defenders and trade union representatives, as well as the protection of land and social rights were key priorities to address,” it said.
The EU has yet to officially congratulate the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on its win in last July’s disputed election.
In Brussels, Ouch Borith, secretary of state at the Foreign Ministry, and Astuto “exchanged views on Cambodia’s reform agenda and priorities in the post-electoral context, emphasising reforms in the election process, governance and the respect for Human Rights as key drivers for Cambodia’s democratic development”, the statement noted.
Calls to Borith last night went unanswered.
Earlier this week, the Post reported that sugar exports to the EU had quadrupled between 2012 and 2013 under Everything But Arms, an EU preferential trade scheme that benefits Cambodian exports.
EU parliamentarians have long called for the EU Commission to investigate the EBA, which, while credited with boosting economic growth, has also been a key incentive for sugar firms implicated in rights abuses and land grabbing to grow cane in Cambodia.
Last night’s statement merely noted that the two sides discussed the EBA “in detail”, though it did state that “land management was also high on the agenda”.
Nicolas Agostini, delegate to the United Nations at the International Federation for Human Rights, said that the press statement “may suggest that behind closed doors, the EU sent messages to the Cambodian government based on the recognition of a deteriorating human rights situation”.
“However, the ultimate measure of the effectiveness of the EU’s strategy will be on the ground,” he said, noting that while some foreign governments have made strong criticisms in private diplomatic conversation to push for change, none have succeeded.