As the European Commission is in the final month of a 12-month review of its trade preferences for Cambodia under its Everything But Arms (EBA) programme, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has thrown down the gauntlet to the EU by putting Kem Sokha, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's (CNRP) current president, on trial for treason.
His alleged crime was to say that he had received training from a US-based non-governmental organisation on democracy. A government-controlled court has announced that his trial - which should be summarily dismissed for lack of evidence - will take three months.
The European Commission announced the review early last year. Under the EBA programme, the EU unilaterally gives preferential treatment to products in return for the recipient country's respect of basic human rights as laid down in international law.
The commission's move came after the Cambodian government dissolved the CNRP, arrested its leader Kem Sokha and many other politicians, journalists and activists, and cracked down on independent media. The commission told the Cambodian government it would have to fulfil its EBA human rights commitments or lose preferential access to the EU market.
Hun Sen, in power for 35 years and showing no signs of relinquishing his dictatorial rule, responded by doubling down on repression. He not only refused to lift the ban on the CNRP, but instead engaged in a fevered campaign accusing it of trying to engage in a colour revolution and start a civil war -- simply by calling for democratic elections.
Hun Sen continues to ban the first president of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, who has been forced to live in exile for years after being convicted in a series of sham trials. When Sam Rainsy attempted to return to Cambodia in November 2019, Hun Sen mobilised troops to prevent him from landing in Phnom Penh. When Sam Rainsy then said he would enter through a land border, Hun Sen persuaded the Thai government to ban him from entering Thailand. In addition, he asked all members of Asean to arrest Sam Rainsy if he entered their country. Fortunately, Malaysia and Indonesia, two of Asean's few functional democracies, ignored this entreaty.
As if to taunt the EU, between August and November 2019 alone Cambodian authorities arrested over 60 CNRP members and supporters on various spurious charges. Overall, approximately 100 have been charged and await trial. While many have been released as a public relations gesture to placate the EU, all risk being rearrested and convicted whenever Hun Sen sees fit. Many others have fled the country or have abandoned politics. More than 100 of the CNRP's senior members remain barred from political activity for five years.
Repressive laws severely restricting rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association remain unchanged. While the government recently adopted amendments to its controversial Trade Union Law, these amendments fall far short of what is needed to bring the law in line with Cambodia's international legal obligations. Numerous criminal cases remain pending against independent union leaders.
Cambodia is the EBA's second biggest beneficiary, with a whopping 40% of all EBA exports. When EBA preferences were granted in 2001, the Cambodian government knew that this was a privilege conditioned on respecting the principles laid down in international human rights treaties and core International Labour Organisation conventions. Yet the situation has degraded considerably.
In a confidential report sent to the Cambodian government on Nov 12, 2019, seen by Human Rights Watch, the EU Commission provided preliminary conclusions to the Cambodian government. The EU determined that Cambodia had seriously and systematically violated key civil and political rights and labour rights standards. The commission set out a series of benchmarks to be met for Cambodia to maintain preferences under the EBA scheme.
The Cambodian government argues that it should keep EBA because the loss of trade preferences may hurt Cambodian workers, particularly in the garment industry. This is unlikely, at least in the short term. It is not clear that local industries would not be able to adjust. Garment factory owners and the government have lost credibility over the past 20 years as they have claimed that each increase in the minimum wage would destroy the industry. In reality, due to protests by brave workers and union leaders, wages have increased by more than 280% since 2006 and the industry is still awash in profits. More importantly, it is only once the commission announces suspension of the EBA that Hun Sen will understand that the EU is serious. An unpopular and corrupt leader, Hun Sen will have to weigh the social, economic and political risks if his actions lead to the loss of jobs.
Next month, the EU will have no other choice than to follow its own law and suspend Cambodia's EBA privileges. This would kick off a six-month grace period before trade privileges are lost. It will then be up to Hun Sen whether to respect the requirements of the EBA scheme. After that, trade would continue, but without preferential treatment.
Hun Sen will try to shift the responsibility for this decision, but it will be entirely his fault. Hun Sen has long played brinksmanship with Western countries, who have time and again proven to be poor negotiators and caved in to the whims of one of the world's longest serving autocrats. The EU has no choice but to call his bluff.
For the EU not to act would be to betray the Cambodian people, who for too long have endured a de facto one-party authoritarian state. It would also render meaningless the commitments Cambodia and the 48 other countries currently benefiting from the EU's EBA preferential treatment.
There is no point insisting on human rights standards but then dropping them because of the stubbornness of a dictator.