US Lawmakers in Threat to Review Cambodia Trade Privileges Over Hun Sen’s Crackdown

By Paul Eckert
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khmer-kemsokha5-021919.jpg CNRP leader Kem Sokha casts a ballot in local elections in Phnom Penh, June 4, 2017.

Citing human rights violations, two U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday that would require the Trump Administration to review the preferential trade terms under which Cambodia exports $180 million of goods to the United States each year.

The Cambodia Trade Act (CTA), introduced by Rep. Alan Lowenthal and Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, would require the government to review Cambodia’s preferential trade status and use the findings to determine whether Cambodia’s trade privileges should be “withdrawn, suspended, or limited,” the lawmakers said in a statement.

The move follows the introduction of identical bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate last month and comes several weeks after the European Union launched proceedings that could see Cambodia’s preferential access to the bloc’s market suspended.

Factors that induced the EU measure included the September 2017 arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha for alleged acts of “treason” and the dissolution of his party by the Supreme Court two months later, which paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 general election.

Lowenthal and Chabot also criticized what they said in a statement were the 34-year-old regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s “serious labor and human rights violations, as well as actions to undermine the nation’s path toward democracy by attempts to abolish any political opposition or dissent.” 

“The regime of Hun Sen has steadily dismantled what was the burgeoning democracy of Southeast Asia,” said Lowenthal.

“He has undermined the will of the people, subverted the promise of free and fair elections, and wielded power with the iron glove of a dictator. Intimidation, threats, violence, and even murder, are the tools of his regime. He and his regime must pay a price for their role in destroying the rule of law and violating the basic freedoms of the Cambodian people.”

“As I have said repeatedly in the past, Prime Minister Hun Sen must be held accountable for uprooting democracy in Cambodia,” Chabot said. “Cambodia continues to receive preferential trade status when dealing with the United States while he continues to trample on the rights of his people. In light of his actions, it is time for us to reevaluate this special treatment.”  

Under the General System of Preferences (GSP), a status Cambodia received in 1997 and which was most recently renewed in April 2018, specific products from recognized developing countries can enter the United States duty-free. Cambodia currently exports more than $180 million a year in goods to the United States duty-free under the program, the lawmakers said.

There was no immediate reaction from the government of Cambodia, which responded to the EU’s threat to rethink trade privileges early this month by calling the decision “unjust” and suggesting that the bloc “doesn't respect Cambodia’s sovereignty, because the EU’s demands amount to political interference.” 

CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua called on the government to protect its trade access to the EU and the U.S. by releasig Kem Sokha immediately and unconditionally and restoring human rights and democracy.

The EU decision kicks off 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.

At the end of the monitoring period, the EU—Cambodia’s largest trading partner—will take three months to produce a report based on its findings, and in February 2020, the European Commission will conclude the procedure with a final decision on whether or not to withdraw trade preferences, as well as the scope and duration of the withdrawal.

Any withdrawal would come into effect after a total of 18 months.


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