The European Union on Thursday launched a week-long fact-finding mission to assess Cambodia’s compliance with its human rights obligations as dictated by a tariff-free export scheme the country benefits from when sending goods to EU countries.
The mission, which was called for in a European Parliament resolution in December, will undertake an investigation in Cambodia from July 5-11 to determine whether Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government is adhering to its commitments in the Generalised Scheme of Preferences—an agreement that grants Cambodian exports tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
In a July 4 letter to European Commission Vice President Federica Mogherini—who is also the bloc’s top foreign affairs official—European Commissioner for Trade Anna Cecilia Malmström, and European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Marianne Leonie Petrus Thyssen, 18 EU parliamentarians welcomed the fact-finding mission and called for its findings to be made public.
“This is a positive step to evaluate if the commitments included in the EBA are being fulfilled,” the parliamentarians wrote, adding that they were “deeply worried about the political developments and the continuous repression of media and civil society in the country” in the lead up to a general election on July 29.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November over allegations it was involved in a plot to topple the government, stripping the party’s officials of their posts and banning many lawmakers from politics for five years. The CNRP’s seats in parliament were distributed to government-friendly parties that had been rejected by voters.
The dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of its president Kem Sokha, as well as a crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, are measures widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stays in power in Cambodia following the July vote. Hun Sen marks 33 years in office this year.
“We believe there is no legitimacy in an electoral process where the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded, and we respectfully expect your statements in this regard to take these worrisome circumstances into account,” Wednesday’s letter said.
“In that context, we welcome the EU’s timely decision to withdraw all forms of support to the National Election Committee, and we expect the EU delegation and member states embassies’ staff to abstain from any monitoring activity that could in any way be interpreted by the Cambodian government as a legitimisation of the electoral process.”
The parliamentarians also stressed the importance of publically reporting the mission’s findings to Cambodia’s citizens and to the EU Parliament, including with regards to the follow-up to a Council of Conclusions meeting in February, which called for targeted measures in case there were no improvements of the country’s rights situation.
“We believe that this is a necessary step in order to ensure the principle of transparency and we look forward to a debriefing on your activities and findings,” the letter said.
Cambodia’s Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan on Thursday welcomed the EU’s fact-finding mission, saying it would provide the government a chance to explain why it had moved to dissolve the CNRP.
“The EU team must adhere to its principles, and proceed on legislative and executive basis, not a politically motivated one,” he said.
Phay Siphan said that the EU’s mission “only intends to study” Cambodia’s obligations under existing Cambodia-EU frameworks.
According to the European Commission, the EU ranked as the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, importing goods worth 5 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) from the country. Key EU imports from Cambodia include textiles, footwear and agricultural products.
The U.S. has already withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country.
But Japan, among the largest funders of Cambodia’s 2018 elections, has maintained that it has no intention of pulling its electoral aid ahead of the July vote and China has also pledged its support.
Seeking visa ban
Also on Thursday, Hun Sen lashed out against New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams, saying he would seek a visa ban for the NGO official after he issued a report last week suggesting that the prime minister’s increasingly dictatorial government is propped up by a core group of “ruthless” generals in the security forces he referred to as “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen.”
The report said that the importance of Cambodia's generals had become even more apparent ahead of July's elections, “as they engage in crackdowns against journalists, political opponents, and anti-government protesters—and openly campaign for Hun Sen.”
Hun Sen on Thursday said that Human Rights Watch had “no right” to report on abuses committed by Cambodian generals because “Cambodia is a sovereign state.”
“Don’t point fingers at Cambodia’s generals, leaders, and military police—you don’t have any right at all,” the prime minister said.
“I have the right to ban your visa. You can’t come in at any time as you wish. Even if you were a United Nations official, if we don’t issue you a visa, you can’t come to my country,” he said, adding that people such as Adams had “caused a lot of negative impact in Cambodia in the past.”
Following the release of last week’s report, Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense dismissed it as “fabricated” and “groundless,” and said that Human Rights Watch was “violating Cambodian sovereignty … in order to serve the dishonest politics of a number of foreign countries” and members of the CNRP, who it accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
Hun Sen’s anger over the report came amid an announcement that Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni had signed off on a controversial new law that would bolster the prime minister’s ability to consolidate power.
The law, which the king approved on June 28 and will go into effect following this month’s election, grants the country’s prime minister the power to appoint undersecretaries of state without approval from the National Assembly, or parliament, as required in the past. It also allows the prime minister to terminate or reshuffle the country’s security forces.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen’s government is “taking advantage of a one-party National Assembly,” after the CNRP was dissolved, to “approve any law that benefits Hun Sen.”
“There is no doubt, [Hun Sen’s regime] is opportunistic—they hurry to make whatever laws they like without any consideration,” he said.
“However, this law was adopted by an illegitimate National Assembly, so it is unconstitutional.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.