EU plans trade sanctions against Cambodia over rights record

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union has declared its intention to slap sanctions on Cambodia over what it considers to be the country’s human rights and trade union violations.

The EU’s executive Commission said Wednesday that it has decided to withdraw key tariff preferences that amount to about one-fifth of the billion euros ($1.1 billion) the Southeast Asian nation exports to the bloc each year. The sanctions are due to start in half a year unless the European Parliament and EU member states raise objections.

“The European Union will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced,” the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrel, said. “Today’s decision reflects our strong commitment to the Cambodian people, their rights, and the country’s sustainable development. For the trade preferences to be reinstated, the Cambodian authorities need to take the necessary measures.”

Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement it regretted the EU judgment, which it said was “triggered by many misperceptions and misunderstandings about the actual realities in Cambodia.”

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Despite describing the EU decision as politically driven and devoid of objectivity and impartiality, it said “Cambodia remains firmly committed to further enhancing its relations with the European Union based on the spirit of mutual respect and interest.”

Cambodia is one of several developing nations with whom the EU has an “Everything But Arms” — or EBA — program granting preferential access to the European market for products other than weapons.

The EU is Cambodia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 45% of Cambodian exports in 2018. Cambodia’s exports to the EU, largely from the garment industry, were worth 5.4 billion euros ($6 billion) in 2018, with 95.7% covered by EBA tariff preferences.

Cambodia’s government had anticipated the prospect of sanctions being imposed.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 35 years and has vowed to serve two more 5-year terms in office, said Tuesday that his country would not cave in and that the withdrawal of the trading privileges was manageable. Though the re-imposition of tariffs may hit the bottom line of Cambodian firms, he has said the EU would no longer be able to threaten or put any conditions on Cambodia.

Speaking to villagers on the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said it was more important for his country to maintain its independence and sovereignty than to retain the privileges.

His party swept all the seats in the National Assembly in the 2018 polls, but drew condemnation from human rights groups and Western nations, who charged that the election was neither free nor fair, especially because a court ruling had dissolved the only credible opposition party. The courts are generally seen as being under the government’s influence.

After the polls, the EU began the process to consider withdrawing preferential duty-free and quota-free status for imports from Cambodia.

Human rights groups had lobbied for the EU measure to put pressure on Hun Sen.

“The EU’s action on EBA is a slapdown of PM Hun Sen and his blatant disregard for human and labor rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “The EU bent over backwards to give Hun Sen opportunities to reverse his brutal clampdown on the political opposition, NGO activists, trade unionist and independent journalists, but over the past year he’s doubled down on his repressive tactics.”

“This is not the EU punishing Cambodia, but rather Hun Sen’s arrogant indifference to human rights hurting the Cambodian people who livelihoods may be impacted because of the EU’s decision,” Robertson said.

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