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EU announces partial EBA withdrawal

Ben Sokhean / Khmer Times Share:
People walk past the European Commission headquarters in Brussells on December 3. AFP

The European Union yesterday announced the partial removal of the Kingdom’s Everything-but-Arms trade status after it deemed Cambodia has not done enough to mitigate serious and systematic violations of human rights.

“The withdrawal of tariff preferences – and their replacement with the EU’s standard tariffs – will affect selected garment and footwear products and all travel goods and sugar,” the European Commission said in a statement issued last night.

It said the EC has decided to partially withdraw the tariff preferences due to the serious and systematic violations of the human rights principles enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

According to the EU, the Kingdom imports under EBA accounted for 45 percent of exports in 2018, which reached $5.8 billion in 2018.

The EBA scheme allows Kingdom goods to enter the EU market 99 percent tariff-free. The loss of the EBA is predicted to cost Cambodia millions, along with risking the jobs of the 800,000 Cambodians employed in the garment and textile manufacturing sector.

The EC statement issued last night said the withdrawal amounts to about one-fifth, or about $1.1 billion, of Cambodia’s yearly exports to the EU.

“Unless the European Parliament and the Council object, this will take effect in August 12, 2020,” it said.

The EC began reviewing the Kingdom’s EBA status in February last year after the ruling CPP swept all 125 National Assembly seats during the 2018 general election.

The review was a response to the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017 by the Supreme Court and the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha over a treason charge.

“Despite systematic harassment, opposition party CNRP had been on track to perform well and possibly even to win the July 2018 election, but in late 2017 the party was disbanded and its leader Kem Sokha charged with treason,” the European Parliament said in a report issued last year. “The CPP went on to win every single seat in parliament for the first time ever. At the same time, the government closed down several critical media outlets.”

The Supreme Court also banned 118 former senior CNRP officials from politics for five years.

EC vice president Josep Borrell said in the statement issued last night that the Commission’s decision to partially revoke the EBA shows its commitment to Cambodians, their rights and the Kingdom’s sustainable development.

“The duration, scale and impact of Cambodia’s violations of the rights to political participation and the freedoms of expression and association left the European Union with no other choice than to partially withdraw trade preferences,” he said. “The European Union will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed and free debate silenced.”

Phil Hogan, EC commissioner for trade, in the statement, said the EU is committed to supporting the Kingdom’s economic and social development through trade preferences, but “the respect for human rights is non-negotiable for us”.

“Our aim is that the Cambodian authorities end human rights violations and we will continue working with them in order to achieve that,” Mr Hogan said.

The EC in the statement reiterated that the government needs to re-open political space, create the necessary conditions for the re-establishment of a credible opposition party and initiate a democratic process of national reconciliation through genuine and inclusive dialogue.

“This includes the reinstatement of the political rights of the opposition members and the repeal/revision of laws, such as the Law on Political Parties and the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations,” it said.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement last night, saying that the EU’s decision was unjust and politically motivated.

“Despite grounding on the EU’s values and principles of human rights and democracy, the decision is politically driven and is devoid of objectivity and impartiality, two fundamental principles which are to be expected from the EC as a supra-national body. The decision is nothing less than the application of a double standard when it comes to the EU’s preferential practices with other trading nations,” the ministry said.

“The Government remains firm in its principled position in rejecting any attempt by external parties in their use of trade and development assistance as pretexts to justify their interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs,” it said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday said the Kingdom “must not bow our heads to such pressure”.

“I will not exchange the Kingdom’s independence and sovereignty for any aid or preferential trade scheme,” he said. “Cambodia must be a peaceful country. Every citizen must stand up and fight for peace, sovereignty and stability.”

He previously said the Kingdom will not fold to European Union demands in regards to human rights and democracy in the country, noting that the government cannot interfere in the judicial system in the case of Sokha.

Kin Phea, director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, yesterday said the government is prepared to challenge the EC’s decision.

“The EU decision is politically motivated – it already set a plan even as the government was making progress in meeting the EU’s demands,” Mr Phea said. “The EU wanted to maintain its values […] the Kingdom also needs to maintain its values.”

“The government said the Kingdom will not exchange sovereignty for the trade preference – it is clear that the government has well prepared before the EU announced its decision,” he said.

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