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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Trade deal threat still on table

Trade deal threat still on table

3 sugar plantation farmers chivoan
A sugar farmer gathers cane on a plantation in 2011. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

The European union’s executive arm has responded to its parliamentarians’ concerns over rights abuses stemming from Cambodia’s economic land concessions, maintaining that, should the need arise, it “will be ready” to withdraw from its preferential trade agreements with the Kingdom.

In a joint letter to concerned members of parliament on Wednesday, European Commission member Karel De Gucht and vice president Katherine Ashton said they were monitoring the situation, and had stressed to the Cambodian government the importance of reforms, as well as the consequences of losing the no-tariff agreement, commonly known as “Everything But Arms” (EBA).

“On both occasions, I, Karel De Gucht, stressed in no uncertain terms the European Union’s strong concerns about the situation of these land concessions,” the letter reads, referring to meetings with Cambodian Trade Minister Cham Prasidh in April 2012 and March 2013. “I reminded the minister of the impact that a withdrawal from the [EBA] scheme would have for the Cambodian economy . . .”

When reached yesterday, Prasidh declined to respond to questions over the phone.

One of the conditions of the EBA is that beneficiary countries adhere to rights declarations such as the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment, both of which concessionaires – particularly in the Kingdom’s sugar industry – have been accused of violating.

Referring to a European Parliament resolution from last October in which the body called on the commission to temporarily suspend the EBA for agricultural products, the letter added that the commission “is keeping the situation under close review,” and “will be ready to take action” if the conditions for withdrawing are met.

However, Eang Vuthy, a representative of the rights group Equitable Cambodia, said the commission should have all the information it needs to initiate proceedings.

“They have enough evidence, because last month there was a visit by the trade commission to Cambodia, and they went to the field in Kampong Speu. They talked to a number of affected people,” he said.

“It is clear that the situation has deteriorated and that people have been harmed by the sugar business,” he added.

Jean-Francois Cautain, ambassador of the EU’s delegation to Cambodia, said via email that he could “confirm that colleagues of mine paid a visit to Kampong Speu in March and met not only with NGOs there but also with local communities, local authorities and representatives of the private sector.” However, he did not elaborate on whether the visit would prompt specific action from the commission.

Vuthy argued that though suspending the agreement would certainly hurt companies that wrongfully benefit, it would do little for affected villagers who “have nothing more to lose”.

“Even [if] the EU suspended the EBA, companies and the EU still have to solve the problems of the people,” he said. “They cannot run away. If they found that the company breached, or the EU breached its own policy, they still need to address the needs of the people.”

Additional reporting by Vong Sokheng



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