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Cambodia: EU partially withdraws trade preferences over rights concerns; stakeholders respond

In February 2020, the European Commission decided to withdraw part of the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the European Union's Everything But Arms' (EBA) trade scheme because of serious concerns over violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. 

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre follows this story, with updates on statements made by various stakeholders in response to the recent decision.

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5 January 2020

Cambodia: Workers and unions confederation calls on the govt. to engage with EU to maintain EBA in fear of mass job losses

Author: Vicheika Kann, Voice of America

"Worker Confederation: Gov’t Responsible If EBA Suspended", 4 January 2020

The Cambodian Confederation of Unions collected 1,300 thumbprints from workers on a petition asking Prime Minister Hun Sen to work with the European Union to prevent a suspension of the critical “Everything But Arms” trade privileges.

The alliance of worker unions issued a letter … to express their concern over the government’s reaction to the EU’s preliminary investigation in the potential suspension of the trade privileges.

“If we lose our job because of the suspension of EBA tariff scheme from the European Union, we will consider the leaders of the Royal Government of Cambodia responsible and the ones who have brought hardship to us and our families,” the letter reads…

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said the withdrawal of the EBA privileges would put Cambodia in a serious crisis.

“If Cambodian citizens lose their jobs, they lose their income, the turmoil will happen,” he said, at a press conference ... “The turmoil means there will be social insecurity.”

Rong Chhun said it was not hard for the government to comply with the EU’s requirements and restoration of democracy would help improve the situation and to maintain the preferential access.

Cambodian People’s Party Senator Sok Eysan said that the EBA withdrawal would not affect the country’s economy and that the EU’s demands were political in nature…

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia has said that the withdrawal could affect the garment sector in Cambodia and brands have also expressed their concerns, which could lead to relocation…

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3 January 2020

Cambodia: IMF forecasts serious economic risks if EU withdraws EBA; unions and labour rights activists urge govt. to do more to save EBA

Author: Reaksmey Hul, VOA

"Unions Push Gov’t For EBA Talks As IMF Forecasts Serious Economic Risks", 1 January 2020

A week after the International Monetary Fund warned of serious downside risks to Cambodia’s economic outlook, trade unions in the country called on the government to work with the European Union to retain critical trade privileges.

The IMF forecast … showed that a complete suspension of the ‘Everything But Arms’ trade preferences would see Cambodia’s GDP growth rate drop by 3 percentage points.

It also reported that a full suspension would “lead to a permanent decline in garment sector output and employment in the long-run.” Garment and footwear exports make up a significant portion of Cambodia’s exports to the European Union. The sector also employs around 800,000 Cambodians, mostly women, and indirectly supports 3 million people.

The body also estimated Cambodia’s GDP growth rate, without factoring an EBA withdrawal, to fall to 6.8 percent in 2020, …

Ath Thorn, a member of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said that Cambodia needed to do its best to engage in a dialogue with the European Union, to convince the trading bloc to not suspend trade preferences.

“I think that the EBA is a crucial issue, which is able to maintain macroeconomic stability, as well as decent job growth and income stability for workers,” he said. “If we lost the EBA in any way, I think it will not be good for Cambodia.”…

Khun Tharo, coordination officer at labour rights group Central, said it was incumbent on the government to engage with the EU to ensure that the EBA was not suspended. The government earlier … sent its reply to the EU’s preliminary findings…

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18 December 2019

Cambodia: Vice-President of European Commission urges for genuine and immediate actions from Cambodian govt. to open civic space

Author: Joshua Lipes, RFA

"Top EU Envoy Urges Cambodia to Open Political Space With Two Months to Go on Trade Decision", 16 December 2019

Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union, has called on Cambodia to take “immediate action” to reinstate democratic freedoms with less than two months remaining until the bloc decides whether to suspend the Southeast Asian nation’s tariff-free access to its markets…

“The High Representative reiterated the importance of Cambodian authorities taking immediate action to open the political space in the country, to establish the necessary conditions for a credible, democratic opposition and to initiate a process of national reconciliation through genuine and inclusive dialogue,” the statement said.

Borrell’s comments followed a … preliminary report in which the EU warned that Cambodia has not taken enough measures to prevent a withdrawal of its Everything But Arms (EBA) status…

…, Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun said that withdrawal of EBA status would not only cause Cambodia to lose hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars annually, but it would shatter the country’s economy and social system.

“If the country suffers from an unemployment crisis, tax collection will fall short and the banks will run out of money, leading to the government’s inability to pay civil servants,” he said.

“Cambodia could see unrest that could seriously affect social security,” he added, urging the government to heed the EU’s demands on improving human rights and democracy.

Koul Panha, director of the advocacy group Comfrel, told … that Cambodia cannot expect to rely on China—which Hun Sen’s government has pivoted to from the West in the wake of last year’s controversial election…

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13 December 2019

Cambodia: Govt. submit written response to EU's concerns about human rights & labour rights after EBA's related reports

Author: Chan Thol Prak, Reuters

"Cambodia says responds to EU over human rights concern", 12 December 2019

Cambodia's government said … it had responded to the European Union over human rights and political concerns and urged the bloc to consider that nearly one million female workers would be affected if it suspended trade benefits.

The EU has threatened to suspend its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme with Cambodia after a European Commission report found that Prime Minister Hun Sen's government has cracked down on the opposition, civil society groups and the media…

Cambodia's Foreign Ministry said the government had handed in its response.

The response is "a comprehensive report on the actions and measures undertaken by the Royal Government to respond to all the areas of concerns" by the EU, in particular with respect to the right to political participation, land rights, freedom of expression and freedom of association, the ministry said.

"The Royal Government expects that the European Commission will take into consideration the government's good faith efforts to implement all the relevant international conventions under the EBA regulations, …," the ministry said.

…, Hun Sen dismissed the threat by the EU to withdraw trade privileges, saying Britain's exit from the bloc will ease the pain of sanctions.

The European Union accounts for nearly half of Cambodia's exports, with Germany being the largest export market for Cambodia, taking roughly 11 percent of its goods, while Britain is the second largest, buying over 8 percent of goods from the Southeast Asian country, according to official data. Garments make up a large chunk of the exports…

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10 December 2019

Cambodia: Interior Minister claims Cambodian civil society is not threatened and repressed; while NGOs express difficulties in operating their work

Author: Dara Mech, The Phnom Penh Post

"Sar Kheng: Gov’t to tell EU it found no evidence of NGO ‘repression’", 8 December 2019

Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said his ministry will respond to EU claims that Cambodian civil society organisations had been threatened and repressed by saying it could not find evidence to support the allegations of certain NGOs…

“Some information failed to reach us even though some NGOs have said they sent the information directly to us. We cannot act to resolve such issues when we have not received the information.

“This is the truth,” Sar Kheng said, referring to accusations cited by the EU in its decision to start the process for the possible withdrawal of the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement.

He said the Ministry of Interior had not found any cases of threats or repression as claimed by some NGOs…

He said the Ministry of Interior had taken all concerns regarding the Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango) seriously and held national forums to meet with NGOs every six months…

He said Ministry of Interior officials were working with NGOs to discuss amendments to the Lango…

“Problems have occurred in the past, including the closure of an internal bureau and the postponement of the activities of some NGOs, with some being prevented from organising workshops in the last three years.

“Some NGOs have also been put under surveillance,” said Soeng Sen Karuna, spokesperson for rights group Adhoc.

He said some members of the Situation Room, which monitors elections, had been accused of being involved in a “colour revolution”, while some civil society groups working in advocacy and election monitoring had been placed in a “white book”…

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29 November 2019

Cambodia: Kratie provincial authorities solve longstanding land disputes between over 1,800 families and a rubber plantation company

Author: Sotheary Pech, Khmer Times

"Kratie resolves Memot Rubber Plantation land dispute in Snuol", 28 November 2019

Kratie provincial authorities have resolved a land dispute between more than 1,800 families and the Memot Rubber Plantation Company in Snuol district’s Pi Thnou commune.

Khan Chamnan, provincial deputy governor, ... said that each family will receive two hectares of Social Land Concessions.

He noted that the resolution process began ... last year and was successfully resolved this month with the government deciding to carve out about 4,000 hectares from an Economic Land Concession for the company to be given to the families.

Mr Chamnan said more than 4,000 hectares has been carved out in two locations, one involving more than 600 hectares and the other more than 3,000 hectares.

“The land allocation in the area will benefit 1,884 families, or nearly 7,000 family members,” he noted.

Kao Madilen, provincial Department of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction director, ... said that the government allocated the two hectares per family for them to build houses and farm...

The land dispute in Pi Thnou commune began in March 2018 and turned ugly when there was a clash between the armed forces and a group of protesters who blocked National Road 76A to prevent the company’s bulldozers from clearing their crops in the area...

Siv Vy, a resident among those who sought intervention, ... thanked the government for successfully resolving the land dispute and giving out two hectares of land to each family.

However, he urged provincial authorities to speed up repairing a road and other infrastructure in the area to facilitate people’s living...

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29 November 2019

Cambodia: Labour groups brief foreign diplomats on labour rights situations including workers' rights and union freedom

Author: Vida Taing, Khmer Times

"Labour rights groups brief US ambassador over rights situation", 28 November 2019

A group of labour rights NGOs ... met with US Ambassador Patrick Murphy to highlight improvements to the Kingdom’s laws and challenges workers still face.

Moeun Tola, executive director of the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, ... said the groups stated their concerns over the Trade Union Law, noting that the law did not fully promote workers’ rights and ensure union freedom.

The National Assembly ... amended ten articles of the law in a bid to protect workers’ rights and improve union freedom, but Mr Tola and other unionists say the effort fell short.

“We have the same opinion over the problem on the rights to form unions and the right to collective bargaining,” Mr Tola said. “A unionist can no longer represent workers when there is a labour dispute.”

“The amendments did not fully respond to and reflect the main issues that concerned stakeholders,” he added...

William Conklin, country director of the US-based Solidarity Centre, ... said the groups believe that there were other issues that needed to be addressed in the amendments.

“As you know, unions had given a list of requests, the changes that they wanted to see, but many of those were not addressed,” he said.

Mr Conklin said the meeting also touched on various other issues, including the extended Better Factories Cambodia programme, how to ensure that the labour law is complied with and that labour rights are protected in the new travel goods sector...

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour ... said it is inevitable that some labour rights NGOs will express disappointment and concerns...

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29 November 2019

Cambodia: The Ministry of Interior and representatives of NGOs meet to discuss proposed amendments to Law on Associations and NGOs

Author: Sokhean Ben, Khmer Times

"Draft Lango amendments on the table", 29 November 2019

The Interior Ministry is due to hold a meeting with representatives of local and foreign NGOs ... in a bid to review and give feedback over draft amendments to the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations.

The ministry issued a statement ... saying that the meeting will be held ... between representatives of local and international NGOs and the government’s working group to work out requests for amendments made by the NGOs.

It said the contentious contents in Lango will be raised and discussed in detail.

Lango was passed in 2015 by CPP lawmakers amid a parliamentary boycott by opposition CNRP lawmakers.

The law requires more than 5,000 local and international NGOs working in the Kingdom to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution or shutdowns.

Korn Savang, coordinator for election monitor Comfrel, yesterday said that his organisation will attend the second meeting on Tuesday and noted that it will raise its concern regarding the law...

Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak ... denied that the government restricted NGOs’ activities.

“Due to their criticism, now we decided to sit down and discuss it together,” Gen Sopheak said. “What do you want and what can we fix? They have accused the government of restricting and monitoring their activities.”

Gen Sopheak said that Lango aims to protect the interest of the country and people...

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27 November 2019

Cambodia: Minister of Interior is interested in addressing land disputes raised by EC in its report related to EBA trade preferences

Author: Vida Taing, Khmer Times

"Sar Kheng says Kingdom is addressing European Union’s land dispute concerns", 21 November 2019

Interior Minister Sar Kheng ... said that the government has already made progress on one of the points listed in the European Commission’s preliminary report on whether the Kingdom should retain its Everything-but-arms trade status with the European Union.

The government is currently reviewing the preliminary report, which was submitted last week, and Mr Kheng ... revealed that one of the points of concern listed by the EC is land disputes in the Kingdom.

“I am interested in one point written in the preliminary report,” Mr Kheng said. “It was about resolving land disputes.”

“The government has clearly put a lot of effort into it,” he added. “It remains a problem, but it has been narrowed down. The EC’s report acknowledges positive progress.”

According to a report issued by the Ministry of Land Management on October 2, its cadastral committee received a total of 1,894 complaints on land disputes.

Of those, the ministry solved 1,765 cases and refused to investigate one because it was not under their jurisdiction. The rest is yet to be resolved.

The EBA status allows preferential access to the European Union market. It has been under review by the EC since February. The EC said duty-free trade under the EBA may be suspended due to serious and systematic violations of labour and human rights...

Ngy Chanphal, a secretary of state with the Interior Ministry, ... said the EC’s preliminary report noted positive steps taken by the government in the past nine months to retain the Kingdom’s EBA status...

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27 November 2019

Cambodia: PM says EU's demands for Cambodia to retain trade preferences unacceptable; while labour rights activist demands govt. consider those demands

Author: Sokhean Ben, Khmer Times

"Hun Sen slams EU over unacceptable EBA demands", 22 November 2019

Prime Minister Hun Sen ... said demands being made by the European Union in order for the Kingdom to retain its Everything-but-arms trade status are unacceptable and will not be fully implemented.

“We cannot accept what they demand,” Mr Hun Sen said during a speech at an inauguration ceremony in Phnom Penh. “We cannot exchange our legal system and independence [to retain the EBA].”

Mr Hun Sen’s comments came after the European Commission filed a preliminary report with the government ... regarding steps the government must take to retain its EBA status...

The EU has been demanding that the government “restore democracy and the rule of law, and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms”, referring to the dissolution of the opposition party and crackdowns on civil society and press freedom...

The EU is one of Kingdom’s biggest markets for textile and garment products with duty-free access under the EBA. The EU market accounts for about 40 percent of Cambodia’s exports.

Moeun Tola, executive director of the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, yesterday said the government should fulfil the EU’s demands to retain the EBA.

Mr Tola said that investors will move to other countries if the EBA is withdrawn, noting that the government should provide stronger support to investors so they still do business in the Kingdom.

“If the government can provide subsidies for their investments, it will be good,” he said...

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