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Cambodia: EU Partially Suspends Trade Preferences

Hun Sen Responsible for Decision Because of Worsening Human Rights Situation

Women in the sewing division of a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. © 2014 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

(Bangkok) – The European Commission on February 12, 2020, announced the partial suspension of Cambodia’s preferential trade preferences with the European Union after the government failed to address serious human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. Prime Minister Hun Sen should take urgent measures to improve the dismal human rights and labor rights situation in Cambodia that led to the commission’s decision, including ending the ban on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and dropping charges against the leader of the CNRP.

The EU decision followed a formal year-long review of Cambodia’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade preferences. The EU’s preliminary conclusion, sent to the Cambodian government on November 12, 2019, stated that Cambodia has seriously and systematically violated the right to freedom of expression, restricted other civil and political rights, and failed to ensure labor rights. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a statement that the EU “will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced. Today’s decision reflects our strong commitment to the Cambodian people, their rights, and the country’s sustainable development.”

“The trade preferences unilaterally granted by the EU are based on the requirement of adherence to international human rights standards,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hun Sen has publicly and defiantly refused to take steps to address the EU’s concerns, even launching a sham treason trial against the leader of the opposition in the final stages of the EU’s deliberations, leaving the EU with no choice but to take this action.” 

Cambodia has been the EBA program’s second-largest beneficiary, accounting for approximately 40 percent of all items with EBA preferences sent to the EU. When EBA preferences were granted in 2001, the Cambodian government recognized that EU trade privileges were conditioned on respecting the principles laid down in international human rights treaties and core International Labour Organization conventions. 

The partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA trade preferences will affect selected garment and footwear products and all travel goods and sugar. After a six-month interim period, sectors affected by the suspension will be subject to import tariffs when entering the EU market. If the Cambodian government meets the human rights and labor rights requirements of the EBA, the commission could reinstate the preferences. The commission could have called for a complete suspension and can also increase the breadth of the suspension if the situation deteriorates.

The European Commission’s review was prompted by a serious deterioration in the rights situation in recent years, including the dissolution of the CNRP; the arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha; a surge in political prisoners; criminal cases against scores of other politicians, journalists and activists; intimidation that forced activists to flee into exile; and a crackdown on and closing of independent media outlets.

During the year-long review, Cambodian authorities arrested more than 60 local CNRP members and supporters, summoned another 150 opposition members and supporters to police stations and courts, and filed bogus charges against more than 115 for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. Charges are still pending against those released from custody.

When the exiled political opposition leader Sam Rainsy announced plans to return to Cambodia in November, the government ratcheted up harassment of opposition members both inside and outside Cambodia. Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry canceled the passports of 39 opposition members and prevented their return by collaborating with Thailand and other governments in the region to prevent them from traveling back to Cambodia. Ongoing political harassment has resulted in a steadily rising number of opposition members fleeing the country due to fear of persecution.

On January 22, 23 companies and nongovernmental organizations, including major international garment brands sourcing from Cambodia, raised concerns about the labor rights situation in the country. They urged the government to amend or repeal two problematic laws, the Trade Union Law and the Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO), and drop all outstanding criminal charges against union leaders.

“As the dictatorial leader of Cambodia, Hun Sen is responsible for the ruthless crackdown on dissent and human rights across the country, which forced the EU to follow its own rules and suspend some EU trade benefits,” Adams said. “Hun Sen can get these preferences restored and show he cares about Cambodian workers by ending his assault on labor rights, the political opposition, and fundamental freedoms. International companies sourcing from Cambodia should enhance pressure on the government so that it complies with its international human rights obligations.”

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