The government yesterday chastised the European Commission’s move to initiate a six-month “intensive monitoring” period of the country over perceived democratic and human rights setbacks, labelling the move “an extreme injustice” and “tantamount to acts of interference”.
The EC on Monday launched the monitoring period, which could lead to the suspension of the Kingdom’s preferential access to the European Union market under the Everything-but-arms trade scheme.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia expresses its deep regret over the European Commission’s decision,” a statement issued last night said. “The RGC considers this decision as an extreme injustice when the EC disregards the concrete measures and substantial progresses made by the RGC.”
The statement noted that the government has made progress regarding the strengthening of political and civil society spaces, promoting labour rights and addressing land issues.
“The RGC is of the view that the EC has not acted on the principles of ‘good faith’ and ‘fairness’. While many countries receiving the EU trade preferences have not fully complied with these international conventions and to which the EC has closed a blind eye, the EC hiding behind its political agenda has unfairly imposed and expected the ‘perfect implementation’ of these Conventions from Cambodia,” it added. “To any neutral and fair observer, all the RGC’s actions and measures can be recognised as substantial in nature, taking into account the complexity of many of these issues.”
The government statement followed remarks from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said the Kingdom’s economy is thriving and could survive even if the EU revokes the country’s access to the EBA scheme.
Mr Hun Sen noted on Facebook that the Kingdom’s economy is developing and tax revenues are increasing.
“Cambodia cannot depend on only foreign support and must not trade its independence and sovereignty for anything,” Mr Hun Sen said. “However, we want to be good friends with partner countries that want to see Cambodia grow without external interference.”
“Cambodia’s economy, which was previously hit by sanctions and pressure, is now growing and becoming stronger,” he added, noting that the country’s GDP growth is seven percent per annum. “I thank the business community for fulfilling their tax obligations and expanding trade and investment in the country.”
Mr Hun Sen said Cambodia is set to become an upper-middle income country by 2030 and will become a high-income country by 2050 due to the success of tax collection.
On Monday, vice president of the EC Federica Mogherini said despite steps taken by the government, its access to the EBA scheme must still be questioned.
“Over the last eighteen months, we have seen the deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia. In recent months, the Cambodian authorities have taken a number of positive steps, including the release of political figures, civil society activists and journalists and addressing some of the restrictions on civil society and trade union activities,” Ms Mogherini said. “However, without more conclusive action from the government, the situation on the ground calls Cambodia’s participation in the EBA scheme into question.”
EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström added: “Our engagement with the situation in Cambodia has led us to conclude that there are severe deficiencies when it comes to human rights and labour rights in Cambodia that the government needs to tackle if it wants to keep its country’s privileged access to our market.”
The United States embassy yesterday issued a statement buttressing the stance of the EC.
“We share the EU’s concerns about serious violations of freedom of expression, internationally recognised labour rights, and freedom of association,” the statement said. “The US calls on Cambodian leaders to restore a true, multi-party democracy, as enshrined in the constitution.”
The embassy also called for the government to drop charges against former opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was charged with treason prior to the former opposition CNRP being dissolved by the Supreme Court in the lead up to the national election.
The government statement issued yesterday also specifically addressed issues raised by the EU and US.
“On the principle of multi-party, the EC is narrow-mindedly focused on the existence of the dissolved CNRP and the fate of its leadership,” the statement said. “The EC is challenging the legitimacy of last July election on the sole ground that the CNRP was missing from the elections. The EC fails to recognise the 19 parties contesting the election, which had received nearly a million and half ballots, representing 23 percent of valid votes.”
“The EC has not shown due respect to Cambodia’s sovereignty when their EBA demands are tantamount to acts of interference with the political development in the country,” it added. “It has chosen to deny the voices of the overwhelming majority of the Cambodian voters who have shown their votes of support for the RGC. Instead the EC has opted to side with a handful of politicians who have built their popularity on racial hatred, xenophobia, and inflammatory speeches inciting people to start a civil war.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said “the EU’s decision is politically motivated and aims to push the Kingdom into war”.
“Cambodia must protect itself,” he added.
Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy yesterday on Facebook once again accused Mr Hun Sen of holding citizens hostage in an attempt at blackmailing the international community into tolerating human rights violations.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia also issued a statement yesterday, calling on the EC and EU member states to thoroughly assess the issue of human rights in the Kingdom.
“A suspension of the EBA will increase tariffs by 12 percent in the garment sector and by eight to 17 percent for footwear products,” the statement said. “The competitiveness of our sector will unduly be put at risk. The reputation of our industry will be harmed and Cambodia’s development will be halted.”
“All efforts made in building a responsible garment supply chain will be jeopardised and it will be a dramatic setback for workers, especially those from rural communities,” it added.
The European Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia also expressed its concerns on possible negative consequences on current and future business between the EU and Cambodia.
“We are very concerned that this investigation will send wrong signals about the prospects of the market to potential manufacturing investors during 2019,” EuroCham Cambodia chairman Arnaud Darc said.
The European Union market plays a significant role in the growth of Cambodia’s economy. It accounts for 40 percent of Cambodia’s exports, rising 227 percent between 2011 and 2016, and reaching $5.77 billion in 2017.
The government yesterday ended its statement by reiterating that it is still willing to iron things out with the EC, but will not – as Mr Hun Sen said – exchange its sovereignty for access to the EBA.
“All these arguments notwithstanding, the government is committed to continue enhancing the democratic space, human rights and labour rights,” it said. “However, we are as much determined to protect our peace, stability, independence and sovereignty at all cost.”