In October last year, the EU announced it would begin the process to withdraw Cambodia’s access to its preferential Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement, which allows least developed countries duty- and tariff-free imports into the 28-nation bloc. Its decision was based on perceived democracy and human rights issues.
In an exclusive interview on Wednesday, The Phnom Penh Post’s Niem Chheng spoke with French academic Dr Raoul Jennar about the EBA situation.
Dr Jennar holds a PhD in political science and Khmer studies from the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, with a thesis on “The Borders of Contemporary Cambodia”.
He has 30 years of involvement in Cambodia’s recent history as an expert with various NGOs, the UN, Unesco and the EU, as a consultant to the Cambodian government on border issues, and as a UN expert at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia that tried former leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
A diplomatic adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he spoke in a personal capacity and his opinions do not necessarily reflect that of the Cambodian government.
Would the EU withdrawing Cambodia’s access to EBA help bring a solution to the current political situation?
Sanctions are one of the EU’s tools to promote peace, democracy and respect for the rule of law, human rights and international law. But the EU does not impose sanctions on countries that supply strategic raw materials, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo – also a beneficiary of EBA – or who are good customers of European arms industries – like Egypt.
And the EU remains silent about massive abuses of human rights in a lot of countries for political reasons.
Sanctions often have consequences affecting the daily life of the huge majority of the people.
In the name of defending political rights, the fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 22 to 27 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are jeopardised – the right to food, health, education, work and wellbeing. In the name of democracy and human rights, one can even provoke civil wars, as recent history provides us with particularly deadly examples.
Sanctions belong to a logic of international relations where it is the strong that imposes its law on the weak. This is contrary to the spirit of the UN Charter. The suspension of EBA would be nothing more than a sanction. It will not meet EU expectations.
What should the EU do to improve democracy and human rights in Cambodia?
The EU should first and foremost be impartial when it makes judgement about the political life of Cambodia. But this is not the case.
The EU has never condemned the calls for racial hatred and xenophobia by CNRP leaders; it has never condemned the practice of the CNRP to defame and slander members of the government.
It has [also] never condemned the CNRP’s use of false maps and fake treaties to make it appear that the government is transferring part of the national territory to Vietnam. It never condemned Sam Rainsy when he incited poor peasants to tear up border posts.
The EU has remained silent about the demagogic and populist behaviours of the CNRP. It called that a “vibrant democracy”.
The EU has always had a benevolent welcome to CNRP leaders who have been encouraged to persevere in their undemocratic ways of expressing their opposition. The EU acted on them as if they were its proteges. The EU has reserved all its criticisms for the government. The EU is not neutral.
EU officials used to say they defend values and principles only. But nobody can trust such a statement. It is not credible because it does not do it everywhere, either inside the EU or all over the world.
The EU should understand rather than judge. Political pluralism is a novelty in Cambodia. It did not exist before French colonisation or during or after, only after 1993. And it is not enough to have a beautiful Constitution and elections to make a genuine democracy.
The general level of education is still low and provides a fertile ground for demagogues. There is no national consensus on key issues. The division factors are multiple.
The EU could do a useful job, for example, by helping Cambodians to better understand the historical realities that are often disguised for political reasons, by providing technical assistance in the functioning of a representative democracy that is respectful of people and institutions.
What should Cambodia’s position be?
So far, Cambodia has cooperated with the EU. And from the Cambodian side, the will is genuine to achieve a great number of common goals. There is an ongoing dialogue that has made real progress on some complex subjects.
For example, the EU demands absolute respect for international conventions which are not respected 100 per cent by many beneficiaries of EBA. Even though it sees this double standard, the government is making significant improvements on different issues.
One example is in the social field. When the EU demands such efforts, it forgets the terrible competition to which Cambodia is subjected. Any social progress involves the risk of companies going elsewhere. Even facing such a deal, the government improves significantly the daily lives of the workers.
A good option for the EU and for Cambodia is the continuation of a constructive dialogue with mutual respect and concrete results. But the EU should not forget that Cambodia is a sovereign state and leave to the government the modalities to implement the desired improvements.
There are Brussels EU officials who behave as if Cambodia was an EU member state. They demand that the texts be written as they write them.
What would be the best way for Cambodia to move forward politically?
What is the purpose of politics? The welfare of the whole people. Wellbeing is achieved first of all by the satisfaction of basic needs – enough food, healthcare accessible to all, equal opportunities in relation to education and studies, decent housing, a well-paid job, a clean environment.
Are these not as equally important as political freedom? Achieving these goals of primary importance requires time and political stability.
I would like to quote a former French prime minister: “What does it mean to vote for those who are hungry? What does freedom of expression mean for those who are deprived of knowing? What do equality and fraternity mean for those for whom misery humiliates?”
Cambodia must find its own way to reconcile development and democracy, to make stability and pluralistic political debate compatible. This is possible, but with three conditions.
One, if all political actors agree on a number of essential issues beyond which this nation cannot live in peace – the current perimeter of national territory, the criminal and genocidal nature of the Pol Pot regime and the liberation that took place in 1979, the need to live in peace with its neighbours and the neutrality of the country.
Two, if all political actors respect themselves and respect institutions and laws, and three, if there is a common will to make peaceful democracy work – there is no democracy in a climate of civil war.