A European Union (EU) mission met with senior government officials at the Ministry of Interior on Tuesday as the 28-member bloc monitors an agreement under which Cambodian goods reach the crucial European market tariff-free.
Some 10 commissioners are in the Kingdom as part of a seven-day fact-finding mission on the current political situation as the EU decides whether to suspend Cambodia from its Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
Under the scheme, all exports to the EU from Least Developed Countries are duty- and quota-free, with the exception of armaments.
The mission’s final stop is due to be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday, government officials confirmed.
In a leaked letter to caretaker Prime Minister Hun Sen late last year, Cambodian Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak expressed concerns over the cost should the Kingdom lose its preferential treatment from the EU.
He said Cambodia could have to pay $676 million in tariffs based on an estimated $6.2 billion revenue from exports to the EU in 2016.
The European Commission (EC) on July 4 reiterated an EU demand for the immediate release of opposition leader Kem Sokha and called on Cambodia to take measures to reverse the court dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
On April 30, the EC submitted a report with a “list of issues” to the Cambodian government. It was mainly based on data from a visit to the Kingdom by UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith in March.
The “list of issues” cites a backslide in Cambodian civil society that includes the law on NGOs, the law on political parties and the alleged repression of media outlets.
The EU has warned the Cambodian government that it would consider “specific targeted measures” if the political situation in the Kingdom did not improve.
Early this month, a Cambodian delegation, led by government adviser Sok Siphana, went to Brussels to lobby the EU not to suspend the Kingdom from the EBA scheme.
“To suspend the EBA because the government chose to protect its institutions against an attempt of regime change by undemocratic means will, in no way, alter the will of the Cambodian authorities to give priority to the maintenance of peace, stability and [Cambodia’s] development,” a delegation document says.
The delegation questioned why threats of such action were not applied to Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries which benefit from the EBA but “where political repression is happening every day”.
Kata Orn, an official with the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, on Tuesday said a delegation of around 10 people visited factories in Koh Kong and Kampong Speu provinces.
“They have a 15-item criterion, and these concern eight ministries and relevant institutions, such as the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Labour, Women’s Affairs and Land Management, and we will discuss each item,” he said.
‘Both sides are talking’
George Edgar, EU Ambassador to Cambodia, told The Post on Monday that the mission was in the context of enhanced engagement with the Kingdom’s authorities under the EBA.
“The mission is meeting government officials and a range of other interlocutors, including civil society, trade unions, employers and international community representatives, in order to learn more about the situation in relation to human and labour rights in Cambodia."
“The purpose of the mission is to gather information to feed into further consideration and decision-making in the European Commission and the European External Action Service,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan said the meetings with the different ministries were to allow government officials to explain the issues facing their institutions.
“The first goal is to ensure and promote labour rights. In this sector, there is no problem because we have made good progress. Another focus is on human rights and politics. On these topics, both sides are talking and no decision has been made,” Siphan said.
He confirmed the mission was in Cambodia regarding an EU decision to suspend access to the EBA.
“Cambodia and the EU are development partners. So we share the same goals of developing human rights and Cambodia’s economy and democracy,” he said.
Umberto Gambini, a staff member for European Parliamentarian Ramon Tremosa, said “the mission will report its findings and suggest a way forward”.
On Tuesday, five workers unions wrote to the EU requesting that Cambodia continue to be included in the EBA scheme.
They said any suspension would affect almost three million people, especially factory workers and their families.