ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

European Parliament Turns up the Heat on Cambodia’s Hun Sen

The strongly-worded resolution is unlikely to induce any change of heart on the part of Cambodia’s corrupt and self-focused elites.

European Parliament Turns up the Heat on Cambodia’s Hun Sen

The interior of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

Credit: Flickr/European Parliament

The European Parliament has adopted a strongly worded resolution calling for “overdue” sanctions against Cambodian leaders responsible for an unrelenting political crackdown, claiming that after one-horse elections in 2018, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “should not be considered the legitimate ruling party.”

The resolution (full text here), which was adopted on March 11, accurately details the various human rights outrages committed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government over the past five years: the abolition of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017; the conviction of its exiled leading figures on confected charges of treason and incitement; the ongoing “staged” mass trials against members and supporters of the banned CNRP; and its intensifying clampdown on independent media outlets and civil society groups.

Somewhat hopefully, the resolution calls on the Cambodian government, to “repeal all repressive laws” and “restore democracy and ensure that the application of the law respects human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Absent a magical turnaround in Cambodian government attitudes, the resolution calls for the EU executive to impose “targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against Cambodian leaders and their economic interests.” It also says that the EU should refuse to send a delegation to the Asia-Europe Meeting Summit, scheduled to be held in Phnom Penh later this year, unless “democracy is restored.”

Last August, the EU partially suspended preferential trade benefits with Cambodia over “serious and systematic” human rights abuses, and has been forthright in its criticisms of the worsening situation in the country.

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Like years of similarly strong-worded statements from the U.S. Congress, the resolution is unlikely to have much impact in Phnom Penh, which, solidly backed by a rising China, has grown increasingly deaf to Western entreaties on questions of human rights. In a broader sense, the EU’s increasing pressure on Cambodia has cast into relief the tensions and contradictions of the bloc’s values-based form of engagement.

This is a policy which allows the EU to remove trade preferences from Cambodia for human rights abuses while signing a free trade deal with Vietnam, a one-party dictatorship, and an investment treaty with China, one of the world’s most repressive countries. A similar incongruity can be observed between the fact that the parliament is calling on the Brussels to enact similar measures on Cambodia to those that it is now considering in the case of Myanmar, where a vicious military, fresh from carrying out ethnic cleansing and alleged genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, has killed at least 138 people since seizing power on February 1.

While these double- and triple-standards are largely unavoidable, they are set to reinforce the CPP government’s perception that it has been held to much higher standards than more strategically and economically important neighbors like Thailand and Vietnam – and that Western democracy promotion efforts are a concealed form of regime change. This, in turn, is only likely to deepen the Cambodian government’s long-standing desire to reduce its economic reliance on Western nations, even if targeted sanctions force the government to make grudging concessions in the short term.

In this context, perhaps the most telling part of the resolution was the European Parliament’s call for the European Commission and Council “to draw up a comprehensive and strategic democracy initiative with regard to the countries of the ASEAN region and to present it to the European Parliament within six months.”

This suggests some awareness of the half-baked nature of the EU’s engagement with Southeast Asia, which consists of a potpourri of self-interested economic engagement and disinterested values promotion, and hints at the primary challenge facing the EU’s foreign policy: how to square the bloc’s liberal ideals with Southeast Asia’s – and the world’s – increasingly illiberal realities.