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UK Will Give Cambodia Trade Preferences Despite Recent EBA Suspension

Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn at a meeting with British Ambassador Tina Redshaw in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 16, 2020. (Courtesy of Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn at a meeting with British Ambassador Tina Redshaw in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 16, 2020. (Courtesy of Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

The British Embassy in Phnom Penh confirmed on Friday that it would grant Cambodia trade privileges on exports, months after the European Union partially suspended similar preferences for human rights violations.

British Ambassador Tina Redshaw informed Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn on Wednesday that Cambodia would be eligible for tariff-free exports under the United Kingdom Generalized Scheme of Preferences, according to an email from the British Embassy.

The announcement comes four months after the European Union officially suspended trade privileges for 20 percent of Cambodian exports, affecting the garment, footwear, travel goods, and sugar sectors.

The decision, which came after a year-long monitoring and investigation period, followed the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, harassment of civil society and independent news publications, and long-standing land disputes.

Ambassador Redshaw said that the UK government would continue to be a “strong supporter of human rights” and had concerns over the rights situation in the country.

“In the meeting, the Ambassador also made clear that the U.K. has concerns about human rights and other freedoms in Cambodia and will continue to monitor the situation,” read an email response from the embassy.

“The Cambodian government agreed with the ambassador’s suggestion to hold a regular dialogue with Cambodia’s authorities on the issues related to human rights and other freedoms.”

According to the list of export codes released by the European Commission in February, products such as men’s and boy’s t-shirts and trousers, certain kinds of men’s underpants, briefs and pajamas, and women’s tracksuits, pantyhose and tights would be tariffed at standard EU tariffs.

All sugarcane related products and travel goods, such as suitcases, leather gloves, and rucksacks were fully tariffed starting from August 12 this year.

In a statement on Friday, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry echoed the British Ambassador's remark that starting from January 1, 2021, the UK would implement an independent trade policy – marking the official exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union’s economic system.

“The U.K. Ministers have decided not to replicate the EU partial withdrawal of trade preferences under the Program Everything But Arms (EBA) for Cambodia taking into account the economic impact of COVID-19 on some of the most vulnerable members of the society, among others, garment workers,” read the statement.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, in the press release, expressed his appreciation for the decision by the UK, calling it a good move for Cambodia’s workers.

“It is encouraging for the Cambodian government and very good news for our workers who have already suffered much from the disastrous impacts of COVID-19,” he said in the statement.

In an email to VOA Khmer on November 20, prior to the official decision to grant Cambodia preferential trade privileges, the British embassy in Phnom Penh said the UK will have similar conditions to the EU’s EBA framework and preferences and will be able to be withdrawn in circumstances including serious and systematic violations of human and labor rights conventions.

“Decisions to suspend preferences need to be thoroughly assessed, bearing in mind the impact it could have on the most vulnerable, including women in the garment industry,” the embassy said in November.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Cambodia has seen a massive drop in economic activity, severely affecting tourism and exports in the critical garment and footwear sectors.

Khun Tharo, the program coordinator at labor rights group CENTRAL, said Cambodia would face similar rights conditions under the UK’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP).

“Cambodia should stop ignoring respect for labor and human rights,” he said.

Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said the UK’s decision is mutually beneficial for both countries, but that the UK should ensure that Cambodia is on a democratic path.

“It is a strategy of the UK to maintain the situation and trade balance with overseas partners after leaving the EU,” he said.