Citing erosion in democracy and violation of human rights in Cambodia, the European Union on Wednesday announced a partial suspension of tariff-free access for around one-fifth of the Southeast Asian nation’s exports to the EU.
“The European Union will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“For the trade preferences to be reinstated, the Cambodian authorities need to take the necessary measures.”
The partial suspension of preferential trade status Cambodia enjoys would affect around US$1.1 billion of the country’s exports to the EU by reinstating tariffs on garments and footwear, as well as travel goods and sugar.
The suspension is set to begin on August 12 of this year, unless it is blocked by the bloc’s governments or its parliament, the European Commission (EC) said.
On November 12, the EU warned in a preliminary report that Cambodia has not taken enough measures to prevent a withdrawal of its EBA status, noting the country’s further deterioration of civil, political, labour, social, and cultural rights since the launch of a review process in February last year.
The EU launched the process to strip Cambodia of its preferential trade terms following the arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha in September 2017 and the Supreme Court’s decision to ban his party for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government two months later.
The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the EC’s announcement on Wednesday with a statement suggesting that its decision had been “triggered by many misperceptions and misunderstandings about the actual realities in Cambodia.”
The ministry dismissed the decision as “politically driven and … devoid of objectivity and impartiality,” and said Cambodia’s government would reject any attempt by external parties to use trade or aid “as pretexts to justify their interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs.”
It also referred to it as an example of “a double standard when it comes to the EU’s preferential practices with other trading nations,” without elaborating. On Wednesday, the EU Parliament ratified a landmark free trade deal with Vietnam over the objections of lawmakers citing the Southeast Asian nation’s human rights record.
In the lead up to Wednesday’s decision, despite warnings from civil society that loss of EBA status would devastate Cambodia’s working class, Prime Minister Hun Sen had said he had no interest in meeting the EU’s demands to improve his country’s rights record.
Cambodia is the second-largest beneficiary of EBA trade preferences after Bangladesh, accounting for more than 18% of all imports to the EU market under the EBA scheme in 2018.
EU imports from Cambodia totalled 5.3 billion Euros (US$5.8 billion) that year, nearly all of which entered the EU duty-free, taking advantage of EBA preferences.
Clothing and textiles—a crucial industry in Cambodia that employs around one million people—account for around 75% of EU imports from the Southeast Asian nation. (Source: RFA)