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BANGKOK – The European Commission has announced the partial suspension of Cambodia’s preferential trade preferences with the European Union after the government failed to address serious human rights concerns. The decision has potentially huge ramifications for Cambodia’s textile and footwear sectors.

The EU decision followed a formal year-long review of Cambodia’s ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) trade preferences. The EU’s preliminary conclusion, sent to the Cambodian government, said Cambodia has seriously and systematically violated the right to freedom of expression, restricted other civil and political rights, and failed to ensure labour rights. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said the EU, “will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced. Today’s decision reflects our strong commitment to the Cambodian people, their rights, and the country’s sustainable development.”

“The trade preferences unilaterally granted by the EU are based on the requirement of adherence to international human rights standards,” added Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hun Sen [the Cambodian PM] has publicly and defiantly refused to take steps to address the EU’s concerns, even launching a sham treason trial against the leader of the opposition in the final stages of the EU’s deliberations, leaving the EU with no choice but to take this action.” 

Cambodia has been the EBA program’s second-largest beneficiary, accounting for approximately 40 per cent of all items with EBA preferences sent to the EU. When EBA preferences were granted in 2001, the Cambodian government recognised that EU trade privileges were conditioned on respecting the principles laid down in international human rights treaties and core International Labour Organisation conventions. 

The partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA trade preferences will affect selected garment and footwear products and all travel goods and sugar. After a six-month interim period, sectors affected by the suspension will be subject to import tariffs when entering the EU market. If the Cambodian government meets the human rights and labor rights requirements of the EBA, the commission could reinstate the preferences. The commission could have called for a complete suspension and can also increase the breadth of the suspension if the situation deteriorates.

The European Commission’s review was prompted by a serious deterioration in the rights situation in recent years, including the dissolution of the CNRP; the arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha; a surge in political prisoners; criminal cases against scores of other politicians, journalists and activists; intimidation that forced activists to flee into exile; and a crackdown on and closing of independent media outlets.

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