The Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union yesterday adopted a set of conclusions condemning “recent worrying political developments and the continuing deterioration of democracy” in Cambodia, though some politicians expressed regret about a missed opportunity to take concrete measures.
The conclusions, passed by the European Union’s foreign affairs ministers, warn the Cambodian government that the council could consider “specific targeted measures” if the political situation does not improve.
They also demanded the release of jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, as well as the reversal of the forced dissolution of his Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Sokha was arrested in September on charges of “treason”, despite his parliamentary immunity, based on a publicly available speech he gave several years ago in Australia in which he told supporters he had received US assistance in planning his political career. The Cambodian government has claimed the video is evidence the CNRP was fomenting a foreign-backed “revolution”.
In its conclusions, the council invites the European Commission and the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, to “closely monitor the situation” in Cambodia and “continue a thorough and comprehensive assessment of development cooperation programmes”.
With regards to Europe’s “Everything But Arms” agreement with Cambodia, which contains human rights clauses that can trigger a suspension of the preferential trade agreement in cases of abuse, the council “invites the Commission to enhance the monitoring of the situation and to step-up the engagement with Cambodia”.
The conclusions also welcome the decision by the European Commission to suspend financial support for Cambodia’s National Election Committee, while requesting the commission expand its support for human rights defenders and civil society.
The council further demands the Cambodian government not misuse the judicial system as an instrument to intimidate political opponents, civil society, and labour and human rights activists.
Phay Siphan, Council of Ministers spokesman, said yesterday that Cambodia was a sovereign state committed to democracy. “They [the EU council] don’t really support democracy, but they like Cambodia to be their token . . . in geopolitical interest,” he said, appearing to allude to Cambodia’s much publicised pivot away from the West and towards Beijing. “They panic [about] China.”
The dissolution of the CNRP and banning of 118 of its politicians “doesn’t mean absence of democracy in Cambodia”, Siphan added.
But Barbara Lochbihler, vice chair of the European Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, said on Friday in a press release that although it was a step in the right direction that the council had acknowledged the “dramatic” negative developments in Cambodia, further steps were needed.
“Targeted sanctions such as travel restrictions for high-ranking government officials would be an urgently necessary signal to the Cambodian government that its human rights violations are not acceptable,” she said.
In an email yesterday, Lochbihler added there was “nothing new in the conclusions”. “How long does the Council intend to wait for the situation to improve?” she asked.
Frithjof Schmidt, a German parliamentarian who had welcomed his government’s ending of preferential visa treatment for high-ranking government officials’ private travel, agreed that the council could have done more. “I would have hoped that the council already [yesterday] decided on stricter visa restrictions against Cambodian government members. Unfortunately that didn’t happen,” he said.
Political analyst Ou Virak said that he hadn’t expected anything else.
“I am not surprised. The language is quite vague and it appears [the council] is trying to send a ‘warning’ to Cambodia of potential economic consequences, particularly in relation to the EBA,” he said. “I think the EU understands how important the EBA is to Cambodia and it’s likely the only language or scheme that matters.”
The reason for the vague language, he said, lay in the nature of the bloc itself.
“Well, it’s the EU. It’s not a single political entity and decisions will always be slow and largely unpredictable,” he said. Inquiries into the EU’s response to the situation have continued.
European Parliamentarian Ramon Tremosa i Balcells has asked the European Commission in a parliamentary question whether the EU had considered freezing assets and visa grants “to the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen or, alternatively, to declare the Prime Minister, in power for 33 years, ‘persona non-grata’”.
He also asked whether the EU had demanded access for journalists and diplomats to attend Kem Sokha’s trial, or if it was “putting on hold other existing forms of support to the Cambodian Government”.
The commission has to reply in writing within a few weeks.