After months of speculation, deliberation, and increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the European Union has decided to partially withdraw its preferential trade deal with Cambodia over human rights abuses.
The Everything But Arms deal allows developing countries to export goods other than weapons to the EU tax and duty free, but comes with human rights requirements. The EBA was put on the chopping block mostly due to the 2017 arrest of Cambodia’s opposition leader Kem Sokha and the dissolution of his party, which rendered Cambodia a de facto one-party state.
The partial withdrawal will impact about 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports to the EU, totaling $1.1 billion, and includes parts of the country’s all-important garment sector.
The announcement was welcomed by rights activists like Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The EU bent over backwards to give Hun Sen opportunities to reverse his brutal clampdown on the political opposition, NGO activists, trade unionists, and independent journalists,” Robertson said in an emailed statement, adding that Hun Sen left the EU “no choice.”
Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a European political scientist who specializes in Cambodian politics, agreed that Cambodia forced the EU’s hand. In an email, she said that “not taking any action would have meant a loss of credibility” for Europe.
Rather than making concessions while the EU deliberated whether to revoke the deal, Hun Sen lashed out and threatened to crack down even harder on the opposition.
The EBA was always difficult to leverage into actual pressure. For it to be useful, Hun Sen needed to believe that the EU might truly revoke it, but if it did revoke it, the EU would lose any ability to negotiate further. The decision to partially suspend trade preferences allows the EU to maintain both the carrot and the stick. The bloc can add more tariffs if further rights abuses are committed, or it can ease restrictions if progress is made.
Noren-Nilsson agreed that the EU is trying to play a carrot and stick game, but doubted it will be effective.
“One would expect to see the same indifferent attitude to the EU decision that Hun Sen has shown so far, and for his government to simply continue on the trodden path,” she said in an email. While the EU may be able to influence some minor domestic decisions, like the trial of Kem Sokha, Noren-Nilsson doesn’t expect any systematic changes like “the re-opening of political space or the reinstatement of the opposition.”
Mu Sochua, the opposition vice president, said in a phone call that the EU had used its leverage in a “positive way” and that a partial withdrawal was the preferable outcome. She especially noted the EU’s insistence on “national reconciliation through genuine and inclusive dialogue” and praised the ongoing nature of the EU’s engagement with Hun Sen. “It’s not too late for him to reconsider his decision,” she said.
For his part, Hun Sen has remained defiant and given no sign of playing along. Hours before the official announcement, but after some outlets reported a partial suspension was imminent, Hun Sen said he would “not bow down” to European pressure. It did give some indication of who he is willing to bow to, however, as Hun Sen was nearly verbatim repeating Chinese President Xi Jinping’s advice for Cambodia not to “bow its head to the EU.”
Unlike China, the EU claims to have human rights requirements in its relationships with foreign countries. But Hun Sen has his own precondition – if you want to be his friend you can’t criticize his rights record. On these prerequisites, the EU is more likely to compromise than Hun Sen.
“The European Union will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced,” said Vice President of the European Commission Josep Borrell in the statement announcing the decision.
But the EU does stand by and watch as some of Cambodia’s neighbors get away with similar violations. The EU retains its trade deal with the one-party communist state of Laos, where democracy is not so much eroded as nonexistent. It has not revoked its EBA deal with Myanmar, which is accused of such grave human rights violations that the government defends itself from allegations of genocide by claiming it’s only guilty of war crimes.
Hun Sen frequently complains that Cambodia is held to a harsher standard than other countries in the region, and while it doesn’t excuse his government’s rights violations, he does have a point.
Part of the reason for Cambodia’s harsh treatment may be the investment the international community put into building democracy in Cambodia. For decades, Western powers pumped billions into Cambodia, hoping it would eventually flourish into a true democracy, but Hun Sen thwarted them at every turn. The money, time, and effort squandered on Cambodia’s democracy project has to sting.
Another possible explanation is the overall political trend. Laos, while more authoritarian than Cambodia, has not recently become significantly more authoritarian, as Cambodia has. In Myanmar, the military continues to wage war on the country’s ethnic minorities, but many in the diplomatic community still hold out hope for the democratic transition process.
In conversations with multiple Western diplomats and international NGO representatives, there’s a consistent thread of belief that the situation in Myanmar may improve in the near future if the burgeoning democracy is given more time. There is no such optimism in the same community in Phnom Penh.