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EU team to arrive for EBA talks

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Prak Sokhonn meets George Edgar. An EU delegation is set to arrive in Phnom Penh next week for a two-day official visit. Photo supplied

EU team to arrive for EBA talks

An EU delegation is set to arrive in Phnom Penh next week for a two-day official visit to as part of the review and monitoring process as it considers withdrawing Cambodia’s access to its unilateral preferential “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme, officials said on Tuesday.

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Meanwhile, analysts have called on the EU to take into account the positive measures the government has made in areas deemed problematic and said to be behind the decision.

“We are expecting a short visit next week by senior officials from the European External Action Service and the EU’s Directorate General for Trade."

“I cannot give further details at present,” said EU Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar on Tuesday, declining to elaborate on the agenda of the visit.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesperson Ket Sophann confirmed on Tuesday that the EU’s EBA team will be in Cambodia next Tuesday and Wednesday.

They are due to meet Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and Minister of Commerce Pan Sorasak on the trip, as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn on Wednesday.

With the Least Developed Country status, Cambodia has access to the EBA scheme, which allows all goods apart from weapons to be imported into the 28-nation bloc both tariff and duty-free.

But last month, the EU announced it had officially launched the process to withdraw the Kingdom’s access to EBA, citing “serious” human rights violations and a backsliding of democracy.

A decision on whether access is taken away is due to come 12 months after the process officially began, according to the withdrawal procedure.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said he believed that the EU delegation would like to hear directly and on the spot from the Cambodian government on how much and how far it would heed the EU’s five-point human rights demands.

These range from dropping the treason charge against the president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Kem Sokha, to improving laws that the EU considers restrict opposition parties and civil society organisations.

Sok Touch, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said if the EU’s move was not “politically motivated”, Cambodia would keep its EBA access.

He said Cambodia’s human rights and democracy record was better than in Myanmar, which had seen the human rights of its Rohingya minority violated, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a state which has never held a democratic election. Yet, both countries have EBA access.

“If the decision is not made in a politically motivated manner, I believe that Cambodia will retain its EBA scheme."

“The Cambodian government is not standing still. It has allowed those who have been banned from political activity to request a return of their political rights. This answers a demand from the EU for democracy,” Touch said.

He said if the EU was to give Cambodia credit for this, it would see the other positive things the government had achieved.

In January, King Norodom Sihamoni signed off on an amendment to the Law on Political Parties that gave 118 senior CNRP officials banned from politics the chance to return to the political stage through a process referred to as “political rehabilitation”.

Touch said the problem was now with the banned officials themselves if they were to wait for the EU’s final EBA decision.

He said the EU’s demand for the release of Sokha was not possible as his case was under court procedure, while labour rights, another EU demand, had been improving.

Touch said with the banned politicians having the opportunity to return to politics, Sokha’s case proceeding, and the government showing it cared about the garment industry and its workers meant it was working on three areas the EU had mentioned.

“For all of these, the EU should see the efforts the government has made in trying to resolve the issues,” he said.

Political analyst Sok Sakoun said it was hard for Cambodia to prove anything to the EU when the matter was politically motivated. He said the situation now centred on the Sokha case.

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