Prime Minister Hun Sen criticized the partial withdrawal of trade privileges by the European Union at the United Nations General Assembly session on Saturday, characterizing the economic bloc’s move as “biased” and “unfair.”
In a recorded video message to the U.N., Hun Sen said the E.U.’s decision to withdraw trade privileges under the “Everything But Arms” scheme revealed the bloc’s “hypocritical double standards” and attributed the move to the “political ambitions” and “opportunistic agenda” of some countries.
“I believe history repeats itself in the case of the E.U.’s withdrawal of the E.B.A. at a time when Cambodia struggles to survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” read a copy of the speech.
In August, the E.U. implemented the withdrawal decision after an 18-month monitoring and investigation period, after which the European Union Commission determined that the Cambodian government had partaken in systematic human rights violations, triggering rights protection clauses in the E.B.A.
This involved the dismantling of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, harassment and intimidation of the civil society groups, and the shuttering of independent press organizations. The withdrawal will affect around 20 percent of Cambodian exports to the E.U., affecting the garment, textile, and footwear sectors.
Responding to Hun Sen’s comments, an E.U. spokesperson said that if Cambodia showed improvements in civil and political rights the E.U. Commission could review and reinstate the trade privileges.
“Nonetheless, our continued engagement and the E.U. support to Cambodia to fight the coronavirus crisis does not diminish the urgent need for Cambodia to respect human rights and labor rights,” they added.
The spokesperson said the bloc was still concerned over the recent spate of arrests during the coronavirus and detentions for expressing dissenting political views.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said the Cambodian government was ultimately responsible for the trade preferences withdrawal because it had broken an agreement with the E.U.
“PM Hun Sen is the person most responsible for the EU’s partial withdrawal of the EBA trade benefits because he has presided over the systematic dismantling of Cambodia’s compliance with human rights and labor rights treaties that must be followed as a condition of receiving the EBA benefits,” he said in an email.
Am Sam Ath, the monitoring manager at local rights group Licadho, said Cambodia still had a chance to get back all the E.B.A. preferences, but only if the government made the democratic corrections required by the E.U.
“If Cambodia can improve the conditions, I believe that we can get back E.B.A or we will not lose more [privileges],” he said.