The European Union’s top trade official said yesterday that while a delegation from the European Parliament will look at land-dispute claims on sugar farms later this month, an investigation into the country’s duty-free access to the EU market is, at the moment, unwarranted.
Speaking to reporters at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht sidestepped demands by rights groups and from within the EU that the country’s trade preferences under the Everything But Arms agreement be revoked in light of scathing allegations tied to the expanding sugar industry.
“It is obvious that it is a very sensitive matter in Europe, and while if there is a structural offence of human rights, we have to launch an investigation, then we would do it,” De Gucht said. “But on the other hand, we are of the opinion that this is not the case with respect to sugarcane,” he added.
Sugar companies in Cambodia have been accused of widespread land grabbing and forced evictions, leading to calls from rights groups to reconsider the EBA trade scheme that they say is benefiting Cambodia’s wealthy at the expense of the poor.
Their calls have not gone unnoticed, as the impending delegation’s visit and actions by other firms with interests in Cambodia make clear. Coca-Cola is conducting its own investigation into Cambodian sugar producers and the industry’s impact on the local community.
De Gucht is in the region about a week after bilateral meetings between Cambodia and the EU were held in Brussels, when items ranging from trade to politics were raised. The trip was part of a four-day visit to Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar during which De Gucht will try to strengthen EU trade links with the Asean countries.
De Gucht met yesterday with Minister of Commerce Sun Chanthol, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An at Chanthol’s office.
The commissioner said the delegation arriving later this month, a visit connected to an ongoing working group on sugar issues that has involved meetings between local officials and the EU’s ambassador to Cambodia, would include two land rights experts.
Chanthol, the commerce minister, said in an email yesterday that the meeting at his office lasted for one hour and that they discussed issues of land concessions for sugar plantations and the status of 21 protesters that were detained in January as part of a nationwide garment strike.
“I informed the EU Commissioner of the Royal Government’s commitment to resolve the allegation of land grabbing linked to the land concession for sugar plantation and refinery,” he said. “I informed the Commissioner that the Ad hoc committee met three times, twice with the participation of the EU Ambassador, to find solutions that can satisfy all concerned parties,” he added, referring to the working group on claims tied to the sugar industry. “Regarding the 21 protesters in prison, I’m not in the position to comment but I suggested [to] the Commissioner to let the legal process take its course.”
On the detainees and the protesters who were shot and killed during the strikes in January, De Gucht said that the EU is “following all these evolutions very closely and we try to influence them positively so that there is greater freedom of assembly, collective bargaining so that we can lift minimum wages in a concerted effort”.
De Gucht said the EU was working on an initiative similar to Bangladesh’s in which factories and buyers agree on certain workplace standards.
Sugar exports, though only a fraction of Cambodia’s total goods sent to Europe, have quadrupled in 2013 compared to the year before.
Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, said that within the sugar industry, there is more than enough evidence presented by rights monitors to warrant an investigation into EBA.
“We still want the EU to stay engaged but at the same time the EU needs to have clear conditions with the government,” Vuthy said.