Civil society groups and associations released a public statement on Tuesday expressing concern over the EU starting the process to withdraw Cambodia’s access to its “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme, as a delegation from the bloc landed in Phnom Penh the same day.
Senior officials from the European External Action Service and the EU Directorate-General for Trade are in Cambodia on a two-day visit to the Kingdom over Tuesday and Wednesday as part of the review and monitoring process included in the EBA withdrawal procedure, which was launched last month.
“As defenders of fundamental rights and labour rights, we fully understand the European Union’s position and decision. However, we are deeply worried that the suspension of EBA will directly and negatively impact Cambodian people’s welfare and livelihoods,” the statement said.
It said the withdrawal of EBA access could be avoided if the government took appropriate steps to respect its obligations to the people as enshrined in the Constitution, and in particular specific articles outlining Cambodia’s commitment to relevant international declarations, including the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“We, the undersigned . . . call on the Royal Government of Cambodia to take concrete measures to restore the civil society space in Cambodia and guarantee the protection and fulfilment of human rights and labour rights to ensure Cambodian people’s welfare and livelihoods,” the statement said.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin said recent moves taken by the government – such as the arrest of president of the former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha for treason, and the dissolution of the CNRP by the Supreme Court – were legal, not human rights violations, nor a violation of international human rights obligations.
All such legal action was taken to protect peace, stability and social order “to prevent any attempt to topple the government in an anarchic way”, he said.
“Cambodia’s position is that we are trying our utmost to negotiate with the EU to explain to them and make them understand that what happened was enforcement of the law."
“We won’t abandon law enforcement, sovereignty, democracy and the rule of law and opt for aid,” he said.
He said the civil society groups that issued the public statement should instead request the EU consider the interests of all Cambodian people and the nation, rather than a handful of opposition politicians appealing to the international community to put pressure on their own country.
EU ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar declined to elaborate on the visit.
“The EU has been clear that it will continue to engage with the Cambodian authorities over the coming months over EBA and related issues. This week’s visit is part of that process,” he said on Tuesday.
Organisations contributing to the public statement included Adhoc, Comfrel and the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media (CCIM).
“We expressed our concerns to the public and relevant parties such as the EU and the government to make them know of the concerns of civil society organisations about the EBA withdrawal process."
“As for the conditions placed by the EU, [we] have not seen the government resolve any conditions significantly in response. So we worry that if access to EBA is lost, it will affect people’s livelihoods, especially [garment] workers, and affect Cambodia’s economy,” said Soeung Sen Karuna, a spokesman and human rights monitor with rights group Adhoc.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesperson Ket Sophann said his ministry is to receive the EU delegation on Wednesday. He said the visit is “part of a political dialogue”.
The delegation is also to meet Ministry of Interior officials on Wednesday, ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak said.
In February, the EU Commission launched the 12-month EBA withdrawal procedure. The first six months is referred to as the monitoring and evaluation period, in which there is close engagement between Cambodia and the European Commission.
During this stage, the EU will urge Cambodia to take the necessary measures to address the concerns aired to maintain its access to EBA.
The European Commission has cited serious human rights violations and a backsliding of democracy as being behind their decision to start the EBA withdrawal process.
The EU’s EBA scheme gives least developed status countries duty and tariff free imports to the 28-nation bloc. It is reported to be worth $676 million annually to Cambodia.