The EU, Trade and Human Rights in Cambodia: An Uncertain Future

By Adelise Lalande

Food stalls in the Russian Market.

I have never been much of a fan of dentists, and yet I now find myself living in an apartment building owned by a (seemingly) charming Cambodian professional who runs his practice out of the first floor. My new home is mere steps from Phnom Penh’s famous Toul Tom Poung market, nicknamed the “Russian Market” because of its popularity among Russian expats living in the city during the 1980s, a period when the Soviet Union supported Vietnamese occupiers in their rebuilding efforts after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, set up next to the market’s dozens of street vendors (who sell everything from snails to knock-off designer running shoes) are hipster-certified coffeeshops and a Domino’s Pizza. Indeed, Phnom Penh as a whole is a mix of the old and new. But what has struck me, and others, is that the new is quickly encroaching on the old.

Cambodia has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, largely due to international trade. In 2017 alone, trade in goods between Cambodia and the European Union (the country’s second largest trading partner) equaled a whopping €6.2 billion. Approximately 99% of Cambodian exports to the EU, including textiles, footwear and agricultural products, are presently eligible for preferential duties. But this could soon change.

In early June, the city’s tight-knit NGO community was buzzing as EU representatives arrived in Phnom Penh to meet with government officials, business people, civil society organizations, activists, and community representatives. These meetings centered on whether the EU would allow Cambodia to remain part of its EBA scheme. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with what “EBA” even stands for.  Here are a few key points:

  • The EBA: As a least developed country, Cambodia benefits from the Everything But Arms (EBA) trading scheme. Essentially, the EBA gives Cambodia duty-free and quota-free access to the EU Single Market for all goods, except arms.
  • Respect for human rights: In order to benefit from the EBA, a country must (theoretically) comply with international conventions on core human and labour rights—I write this hesitantly knowing that Myanmar, for example, still benefits from the EBA despite ongoing attacks on the Rohingya peoples.
  • Suspension talks: In February 2019, the EU launched an intense 18-month process of monitoring and engagement with Cambodian government officials which could lead to the temporary withdrawal of the country’s EBA status. Why? According to the EU, because of the continued deterioration of democracy and respect for human rights in the country. Specifically, the EU pointed to increasing government crackdowns on political opposition, independent media, human rights defenders and NGOs.
  • Is this an international first? No. Countries that have had their trade preferences temporarily withdrawn for rights violations in the past include Myanmar, Belarus, and Sri Lanka.

My first week of work at LICADHO, I was tasked with legal research related to land tenure insecurity issues in Cambodia. I thus became particularly interested in the EU’s specific concern about land rights violations, many of which are connected to Economic Land Concessions (ELCs). These long-term government leases give private (and generally foreign) corporations the green light to clear land and engage in agro-industrial development. ELCs certainly contribute to economic and job growth, but they also illustrate how the burdens and benefits of development are rarely equitably allocated. Granting ELCs is a profitable practice: the government has made $6.6 million in leasing over 2.1 million hectares of Cambodian land to companies. While a moratorium was announced in 2012, land conflicts linked to ELCs continue to arise and remain unresolved in the country.

Driving past a construction site in Sihanoukville. 

Cambodians affected by land grabbing and forced evictions rarely receive fair compensation for the loss of their homes and livelihoods. They become more vulnerable to malnutrition and forced migration, and are more likely to take their children out of school to have them enter the workforce. Further, land conflicts are linked with the curtailing of freedom of assembly in Cambodia. In March 2018, armed forces opened fire on villagers and farmers protesting their forced evictions and inadequate compensation by a rubber company in Kratie Province. Women and urban poor communities are particularly vulnerable to land tenure insecurity, as are indigenous peoples: I learned that Cambodia has an estimated 455 indigenous communities, and those affected by ELCs have lost subsistence farmlands, spiritual forests and sacred burial sites. Hence, Europe’s concerns about rights violations connected to land in Cambodia are well justified.

An EBA withdrawal would effectively declare to the world that Europe is willing to place democracy and the respect of human rights ahead of trade—a significant declaration albeit one likely to be labelled sanctimonious. A withdrawal would almost certainly create economic turmoil in Cambodia, which could result in even greater hardship for the country’s most vulnerable. Thousands of Cambodians currently work in factories producing goods for export to the EU; should the withdrawal happen, businesses’ efforts to remain competitive (e.g. by decreasing wages) would likely hit workers the hardest. It is also worth noting that greater distance between the EU and Cambodia could increase China’s influence in Cambodian affairs. China is already Cambodia’s biggest trade partner and has heavily invested in large-scale development projects across the country. Given its human rights track record, China is unlikely to act as a government watchdog and apply the same pressures as Europe.

Talks of an EBA withdrawal raise the question of whether a country’s respect for human rights ought to be a prerequisite for trade or, alternatively, whether trade and human rights can be mutually reinforcing. On the one hand, countries that engage in trade with authoritarian, rights-violating regimes help finance (and profit from) these regimes’ actions. On the other hand, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long touted “constructive engagement” with human rights violators as being beneficial for achieving greater individual freedoms in a country.  Jean Chrétien repeated this message while on a trade mission in Indonesia: “Isolation is the worst recipe, in my judgement, for curing human-rights problems.”

Visiting rural Kampot.

While I am certainly no political economist, in my opinion neither position on trade fully withstands scrutiny. I find Chrétien’s opinion to be unconvincing given that Cambodia has benefitted from the EBA (and international trade more broadly) for years and yet its human rights situation continues to deteriorate. Furthermore, based on the work I have witnessed so far, community-led activism and organizing, and the work of CSOs like LICADHO, are largely to thank for the human rights progress that has been achieved in the country; while international support (via diplomacy and trade) is certainly beneficial to grassroots actors, it is insufficient for achieving sustainable change. But, conversely, I also believe that decreased European influence would give the Cambodian government more freedom to shrink the country’s civic space even further.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen what an EBA withdrawal—or, alternatively, a continuation of the status quo—will mean for Cambodians and the protection of their rights moving forward.  My time in the country has been a reminder that, while economic growth is important, it is not in and of itself a development goal.

Aerial shot of the Russian Market.

 

A French-owned pepper plantation in Kampot.

 

Early mornings at the LICADHO office.

 

Weekend trip to Koh Rong Samloem island.

 

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