The European Union’s report on the potential withdrawal of its Everything-but-arms (EBA) agreement was sent to the government yesterday, where officials familiar with the matter claim it has only been seen by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
However, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that it had received a leaked copy of the 70-page confidential document.
The report is set to conclude the EU’s nine-month review of Cambodia’s access to the EBA trade agreement, which currently guarantees tariff-free trade on 99 percent of Cambodian goods being exported to the EU.
However, because of human rights and labour rights abuses, the EU has been considering suspending the agreement that in 2018 enabled Cambodian goods worth $5.8 billion to be exported to the largest trading bloc in the world.
The EU accounts for 17.3 percent of all of Cambodia’s trade, coming second just behind China, which accounts for 23.8 percent. As such, the loss of the EBA deal is predicted to cost Cambodia $654 million a year, along with risking the jobs of the 800,000 Cambodians employed in the garment and textile manufacturing sector.
As such, the Kingdom waits with bated breath the outcome of the EU report, to which the Hun Sen administration will have one month to formulate a reply. A final decision is expected to be cast in Feb 2020.
Following their claims of having obtained a copy of the top-secret EU report, RFA wrote yesterday, “The report noted ‘further deterioration’ of civil and political rights and only ‘tangible progress’ in land and labour rights.”
Sok Sopheak, secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, said that what RFA published is “fake news” because the preliminary report from the EU is not 70 pages.
“It is not correct that RFA said it is a 70-page report – they do it to spoil the government of Cambodia. For me, it is fake news because they reported it wrongly, even [the number of] pages of the report. If they had the report, they would publish all the issues,” said Mr Sopheak, who was photographed in the room when EU officials handed the report to the Cambodian government.
Koy Kuong, the new spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spoke to Khmer Times but could not give any details surrounding the document – including its page number – because the document was strictly confidential.
The veracity of RFA’s claims aside, the threat to Cambodia’s economy remains very real and cracks in the government’s resolve appear to be showing as Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday granted the release on bail of more than 70 political activists associated with former opposition group Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
This followed the partial freeing of Kem Sokha – former president of the CNRP – earlier this week, although critics maintain this is a shallow attempt to curry favour with the EU and does not reflect any real commitment to human rights or political freedoms in the Kingdom.
“Kem Sokha’s release from house detention is a last-minute attempt to deflect European anger at the shoddy way PM Hun Sen and Cambodia have dealt with human rights concerns raised in the EBA process, but it’s really too little, too late for the EBA preliminary determination on Nov 12,” argued Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
With one month to respond to the EU’s preliminary findings, Ek Tha, spokesperson for the Council of Ministers, said he hopes that Cambodia will retain its EBA status.
“Cambodia continues to see the EU as a very good partner. We hope that the EU will keep the trade status for the benefit of Cambodia and her people,” he said, noting that the Kingdom has ratified many regulations with the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
“Cambodia fully respects and honours labour standards. That’s why we have Better Factories Cambodia working with ILO experts, which is what makes foreign investment attractive in Cambodia, because they see any manufacturing here will comply with labour law, so I call upon the EU to keep EBA for the Cambodian workers, because EBA has been contributing to the social and economic development of Cambodia,” said Mr Tha.