Stop for duty-free goods – The EU way to strengthen democracy in Cambodia

News - 2020-02-14
The EU has decided to withdraw part of the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia to put pressure on the country's government to respect human rights and restore freedom of expression and assembly. Our office in Cambodia gives their comments on the development. The EU and the Cambodian government must continue to work together to strengthen democracy in the country.
Women hold signs and umbrellas during International Women's Day celebrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: LICADHO Cambodia
Women protesting during the International Women's Day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: LICADHO Cambodia

The Everything but Arms (EBA) trade scheme grants 48 of the world's low-income countries full duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market for all products (except arms and armaments). But the trade benefits can be withdrawn if serious and systematic human rights violations occur in the country. It is with this clause that the EU is now stopping the duty-free market access for some of Cambodia's export products to the EU.

"The European Union will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced.”

Democracy in Cambodia has in recent years continuously deteriorated. Political opposition and trade union leaders have been harassed and arrested. Independent media has been forced to close following new tax legislation that covered them with heavy tax debts. Civil society organisations are surveyed and monitored by local authorities and their activities are limited by very strict legislation.

The EU has now decided to apply standard tariffs on selected garment and footwear products, and all travel goods and sugar. The loss of trade benefits will affect about one-fifth of Cambodia's annual exports to the European Union. Since the EU is Cambodia's largest trading partner, this will be a hard blow for the country's economy. "The duration, scale and impact of Cambodia's violations of the rights to political participation and to the freedoms of expression and association left the European Union with no other choice than to partially withdraw trade preferences," the EU Commission said in its press release. "The European Union will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced.”

Protesters hold a sign calling on the government to protect Cambodia’s Everything But Arms trade scheme. Photo: LICADHO Cambodia
Protesters hold a sign calling on the government to protect Cambodia’s Everything But Arms trade scheme. Photo: LICADHO Cambodia

"As part of civil society, we urge the EU and the Cambodian government to continue to work together with all concerned for democratic development."

"The withdrawal of trade benefits constitutes a tipping point for Cambodia’s political rights crisis and restrictive actions towards civil society and trade unions", said Forum Syd Cambodia in a comment. "As part of civil society, we urge the EU and the Cambodian government to continue to work together with all concerned for democratic development."

The EU’s action is in line with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, who has expressed great concern over the threats to democracy in the country. The rapporteur recently called on the Cambodian government to respect freedom of expression and assembly and to ensure that civil society organisations can operate freely.

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