A high-ranking government official reiterated on Thursday that EU demands regarding Cambodia keeping its access to the bloc’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement must not cross the “red line” of sovereignty and independence.
However, analysts claim the Kingdom has not fulfilled what has been demanded of it.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn on Thursday met with the team from the European Commission and European External Action Service who are currently in Cambodia for talks as part of the official withdrawal process.
The European delegation is led by Jean-Christophe Belliard, the deputy secretary-general of the European External Action Service, the diplomatic service and foreign and defence ministry of the EU.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesman Ket Sophann said Sokhonn expected the EU team to see the real situation on the ground, which was different from what had been reported.
He said Sokhonn had said that it was not only workers who benefited from EBA but also another two million people – their family members.
“The government will try its utmost to retain EBA for Cambodia. However, there is a red line – the sovereignty and independence of the country cannot be exchanged for EBA."
“Both sides will continue to have dialogue to find a solution in order to retain EBA for Cambodia. Such dialogue is being held in the spirit of mutual respect,” Ket Sophann said.
He said Cambodia had done much to meet the EU’s demands, such as amending the law to allow politicians banned by the courts to request political rehabilitation.
It had also allowed Kem Sokha, the president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, to get conditional bail as he awaits trial on a treason charge.
“Some countries demand freedom for Kem Sokha. This is the part that affects the sovereignty of Cambodia. Cambodia respects the law, the rule of law. What Cambodia cannot do is have this red line crossed,” he said.
Cambodia received access to EBA in 2003, but the EU in February began the formal procedure that could lead to its withdrawal.
Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training spokesperson Heng Sour said without EBA there may be short-term challenges at the beginning.
“We still have more talks and Cambodia has affirmed the position that we welcome EBA, but we will still continue to work with the EU if we don’t have access to it."
“It’s up to the EU to decide its policy on Cambodia. If the EU wants to see positives, I think it will continue with EBA. But if, on the contrary, our counterparts think Cambodia’s improved working conditions is not the key point for the EU in making its consideration, then that is their decision."
“However, Cambodia will hold on to its independence and carry out our independent measures in micro-economic management as the base to grow our economy,” he said.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said Cambodia had prepared for the loss of EBA for a year.
“We have prepared ourselves for the loss of EBA. But what we think unjust is connecting this matter to politics, which makes this issue like a tsunami. This is what makes us unhappy."
“But relations with the EU and its member states will continue to be positive. We will not be aggrieved whether or not EBA is lost. What we care about now is strengthening our economy."
“If they tell us to do anything that affects our sovereignty or violates Supreme Court rulings, we won’t do so. And if it is something that could bring insecurity or destroy peace, we also won’t do it,” Siphan stressed.
Political analyst Em Sovannara claimed the government had not met any of the EU’s requirements while it attempts to retain EBA access.
“Withdrawing EBA access would not help with democracy and human rights, but the EU has no other options besides calling the Cambodian government to follow them,” he said.
He said if EBA access was withdrawn, the human rights situation would worsen and Cambodia could move two ways – one supporting democracy and one defending the government.In the long-term, something unexpected would likely happen, he said.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the human rights situation in the Kingdom had worsened despite the EBA agreement.
“The human rights situation is basically dependent on whether the government honours or not its human rights obligations under the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and the country’s Constitution."
“The EBA agreement serves as an incentive for the government to fulfil these obligations and as a punishment for its failure to do so. The government has stayed put and not budged an inch, and has not heeded the EU’s demands,” he said.
Preap Kol, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said EU was strictly following its procedures and standing by its principles.
They are assessing the situation, giving importance to the four pillars of political rights, the civic space, labour rights and working conditions, and land rights. “Improvements in all of these areas are necessary to avoid losing EBA,” he said.