The European Union kicked off a five-day fact-finding mission in Cambodia on Monday to determine whether it should continue to benefit from a tax-free EU trade scheme, based on the state of human rights and democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.
In February, the EU announced it would launch a six-month monitoring period to determine whether Cambodian exports should continue to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, prompted by a November 2017 ruling by Cambodia’s Supreme Court to ban the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The dissolution of the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media, which paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
In an email on Sunday, outgoing EU Ambassador to Cambodia, George Edgar, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the June 3-7 fact-finding mission will allow a delegation from the European Commission and the European External Action Service to “meet government officials and other stakeholders and to gather information on the current situation,” he said.
In particular, the delegation will be investigating “areas of concern with respect to the UN [United Nations] and ILO [International Labour Organization] Conventions that form part of the conditionality for access to EBA preferences,” he added.
In a follow up email on Monday, the EU diplomat said he was unable to provide details of the delegation’s meetings or discussions.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan told RFA that Cambodian officials have “explained the genuine status of human rights and democracy” to the EU “on several occasions,” but that delegates from the bloc “appear not to have paid attention.”
“I think their [fact-finding mission] is just a political maneuver, meaning that it is not related to the technical aspects of human rights and democracy,” he said.
Phay Siphan said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for arranging meetings between the EU delegation and Cambodian officials, and said he had no knowledge of the agenda over the course of the mission.
But he suggested that Cambodia’s government is unlikely to comply with any conditions set out by the EU to maintain EBA status, as doing so would “affect Cambodian sovereignty.”
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Keth Saphann could not be reached for comment during business hours on Monday.
Local rights groups dismissed Phay Siphan’s claims that the EU fact-finding mission was politically motivated.
Korn Savang, investigation coordinator for COMFREL, told RFA that the government should hold a “genuine dialogue” with the delegation to ensure that a solution is found to the EBA issue.
“The two sides have an agreement … so they should hold a dialogue,” he said.
“[The EU] provides [the EBA] in exchange for respect of human rights and democracy, and they continue to monitor these things. It is not politically motivated, as some have said. It is a fact that [the government] needs to adjust and improve.”
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring and protection at Licadho, told RFA that “the EU delegation’s mission is to monitor and observe whether Cambodia has done anything to improve the environment, as per their conditions or recommendations.”
“Hence, I think this is technically related and is nothing related to politics. What is more, the EU delegation plans to meet with all relevant stakeholders, including the government, civil society organizations, trade unions, and communities in land disputes, to seek the facts.”
On Monday, 85 NGOs, associations, trade unions, and members of Cambodian civil society issued a joint statement expressing concern over the political and economic situation in Cambodia “after respect for human rights and democratic principles has declined following the 2018 general elections,” referencing Hun Sen’s crackdown.
“If this situation continues, Cambodia could well face economic sanctions, insecurity and instability,” the statement said.
The statement noted that based on the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, which ended civil war in Cambodia, and Cambodia’s 1993 constitution, the nation is obligated to adhere to the principles of democracy, pluralism, and respect for human rights.
“The decline of the human rights situation, the recent intimidation of human rights and political activists have shown that the situation is getting worse,” it said.
“We recall and wholly support the spirit of the Paris Peace Accords which stipulate that the country’s development must be linked to respect for human rights and democracy in order to prevent the repeat of the country’s bitter history.”
The groups called on all stakeholders to “join forces to protect and uplift the spirit” of the Accords and Cambodia’s constitution.
“Furthermore, the Cambodian government should negotiate with the European Union and the international community to address the political and democratic issues in Cambodia so as, for the benefit of all Cambodians, to avoid losing the EBA … preferential tariff treatment.”
Call to end harassment
Also on Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling on Cambodia to “immediately end the harassment of former opposition party members and their supporters” and urging the EU delegation to “raise serious concerns about the renewed crackdown with government officials.”
During 2019, Cambodian authorities issued at least 147 arbitrary court and police summonses against members or supporters of the CNRP, according to HRW, many of which “lacked legal specifics,” and contained only “vague references” to allegations that the person summoned may have violated the Supreme Court ruling that dissolved the party.
“It’s been more than a year since a politicized Supreme Court decision effectively turned Cambodia into a one-party state, but the government is still harassing former opposition party members through police interrogations and court summonses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
“The EU and other donors to Cambodia should demand that the Hun Sen government immediately release all arbitrarily detained opposition members and fully restore the CNRP as a political party.”
The HRW statement echoed one jointly issued on Saturday by more than 70 NGOs, CSOs, trade unions, and political analysts, who called on Cambodia’s government to “immediately cease the harassment of members of the political opposition and instead take concrete measures to restore civic space and enable all individuals to exercise their rights to free expression, association, assembly and political participation.”
“The recent surge in legal actions taken against former CNRP members illustrates the serious and systematic misuse of laws to target, intimidate and harass individuals for merely exercising their fundamental freedoms,” the statement read.
“We urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to stop the legal harassment of members of the political opposition and other individuals exercising their fundamental rights … [and to adopt] concrete measures to restore political and civic space, ensure respect for the human rights of all Cambodians, and foster a free and enabling environment for civil society.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.