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EU pressure effective?

Sugar cane is unloaded at a factory in Koh Kong in 2010.
Sugar cane is unloaded at a factory in Koh Kong in 2010. Heng Chivoan

EU pressure effective?

In recent years, communities displaced by sugar plantations have attempted to reclaim their land by targeting the plantations’ investors and buyers overseas, but a study published last week in the peer-reviewed Journal of Civil Society suggests such efforts may disappoint.

Author Young Sokphea notes that after years of both peaceful and violent protest by community members being met with repressive measures by both the Cambodian government and involved companies, they took their struggle overseas.

With the assistance of NGOs, they began targeting companies and markets buying the plantations’ sugar through a range of means, from advocacy to an ongoing lawsuit in the British courts.

Sokphea found, however, that political patronage bestowed upon plantations protected them from many measures enacted by the government in response to international pressure. He also found that lobbying the European Union had limited effects, despite its status as Cambodia’s largest donor.

Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, has placed a lot of faith in lobbying the EU. Working with other NGOs and affected communities, he hoped to persuade the trading bloc to amend its Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement with Cambodia.

EBA allows Cambodia tariff- and quota-free access to the European market for all products, except weaponry. The NGOs wanted the EU to revoke Cambodia’s EBA status until human rights and land tenure issues were resolved.
But two years ago a compromise was arrived at, whereby the Cambodian government would submit to having EU-funded external auditors examine claims of abuse and dispossession.

However, Vuthy said that both he and displaced communities across the country were frustrated that the EU-funded auditors were yet to arrive. Terms of reference for the program were kicked around an inter-ministerial committee for one and a half years, before making it to the prime minister’s office six months ago, Vuthy said.

“We’ve engaged for so many years and now we’re stuck here,” Vuthy said. “We were convinced going through this will result in some kind of systemic solution and now it’s stuck, so how can we believe that?”

In an email yesterday, EU Ambassador George Edgar said that he “continue[s] to await a decision by the Government of Cambodia on the proposed audit” and directed enquires to the Ministry of Commerce.

Commerce Ministry spokeswoman Soeung Sophary put the delay down to a desire to consult widely on this “controversial issue”.

Any further information, she added, would have to be sought from the prime minister’s office, representatives of which were not reachable for comment.

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