Cambodia earlier this month sent a goodwill mission to Brussels to clarify European lawmakers to keep the Kingdom’s current preferential trade status with the European bloc intact, according to a statement released yesterday by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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The Cambodian delegation, spearheaded by Sok Siphana, an economic adviser to the government, was organised following a report from the European Union in April that highlighted human right abuses in the Kingdom and hinted at the possibility of cutbacks in the Everything-but-arms (EBA) treaty, a scheme that gives Cambodia duty-free access to the EU market.
The European report noted a “list of issues”, which include worries over the deteriorating situation of human rights in the country, the shutting down of media outlets, and the worsening democratic atmosphere, particularly after the dissolution of the main opposition, the CNRP, in November.
The delegation’s visit to Brussels, which will last from June 18 to July 1, seeks to give the Cambodian government’s version of events to senior officials at the European Commission and the European Parliament.
During a meeting with the Cambodian delegation earlier this week, European dignitaries were handed a document detailing the Cambodian government’s position, arguments and requests.
In the document, the Cambodian government says the main concerns outlined in April’s EU report are exclusively derived from “secondary” reports of the UN Special Rapporteur to Cambodia, Rhona Smith, who it says is quoted more than 30 times.
“In fact, the harshest criticisms of the government emanate from these secondary reports. Worse yet, we have to recognize that these reports reflect, for the most part, the points of view expressed by the main opposition party, the CNRP, and by a small group of very politically motivated NGOs,” the document says.
“Regretfully, the explanations provided by the government are generally not taken into account or are simply absent in this report.”
The Cambodian government goes on to claim that “the government is always a victim of the unfounded accusations and excessive generalizations,” citing Ms Smith’s harsh stance on issues like the Law on NGOs and the Law on Political Parties as examples.
Regarding the prosecution of high-ranking officials of the CNRP, the government says it acted within its sovereign rights to protect the country against a conspiracy to topple a democratically elected regime.
“There is a conspiracy and a treasonous act of collusion with a foreign power to do a regime change through undemocratic means.”
“The government would not have acted that way if it wasn’t the case, especially knowing full well the ensuing general education of its citizenry.
“We believe that a respect for the democratic values and practices does not come spontaneously just because a treaty has envisaged it or because it was enshrined in its constitution,” the government says in the document, adding that it championed a culture of dialogue that was rejected by the CNRP when it decided to boycott the National Assembly in 2016.
With regards to the EBA treaty, the Cambodian government points out that the treaty has played a huge role in improving the national economy and reducing poverty rates.
“To suspend the EBA because the government chose to protect its institutions against an attempt of regime change by undemocratic means will in no way alter the will of the Cambodian authorities to give priority to the maintenance of peace, stability and its development,” it says.
“To suspend the EBA on Cambodia, while such similar sanctions were not applied to countries where there is no freedom of the press, where massacres took place in total impunity, where repression by the government is a daily occurrence, would be inflicting on Cambodia another terrible injustice.
“Why apply such treatment on Cambodia when it is not applied to Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many other countries that benefit from EBA?,” it adds.
Kaing Monika, deputy secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, told Khmer Times that Cambodia’s inclusion in the EBA treaty has helped improved labour conditions for workers and created thousands of jobs.
“From the perspective of an association representing the labour intensive industry here in Cambodia, we can say that no one can deny Cambodia’s achievements in the field of labour, particularly when it comes to working conditions and respect for labour rights,” he said.
Mr Kaing highlighted some of those achievements, which include increasing the minimum wage by 70 percent. “The average total take-home pay has seen an even higher increase,” he said.
“The social security policy and its implementation have also expanded. There is a new draft law to include all schemes of social security and to provide universal coverage for all citizens.”
A report released in January by Better Factories Cambodia, a programme of the International Labour Organisation, found that compliance in the garment industry with working conditions regulations has improved substantially in the last four years.
In a previous interview with Khmer Times, EU Ambassador George Edgar said the EBA has boosted the country’s economic development.
“For Cambodia, access to the EU market, particularly for garments and footwear, has helped make it possible for the economy to develop quickly and successfully – this is something we are proud of,” he said.
According to data from the European Commission, trade between Cambodia and the EU was worth 5.86 billion euro ($6.7 billion) in 2017, making the EU Cambodia’s second biggest trade partner. Cambodian exports to the EU were valued at 5 billion euro ($5.7 billion), and were mostly textiles, footwear and agricultural products.