Both in my capacities as entrepreneur and as representative of the European business community in Cambodia I reiterate my attachment to European values and engagement to support Cambodia improve its human rights records.
In this regard, jointly with human rights advocates and European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham) members, I want to voice once more my deepest concerns in respect to the process to withdraw preferences offered to Cambodia under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
Trade preference is granted to the country as a whole not to individual operators, and suspension should be employed the same way.
The use of trade as leverage to restore human rights raises an ethical question as to whether a negative impact on businesses, workers and their families who are not responsible for the situation leading to the adoption of sanctions is a legitimate means to pursue foreign policy objectives.
Many entrepreneurs like myself, locals and foreigners, have contributed to the progress of human rights by further enhancing economic growth and socio-economic development for people here in Cambodia.
Together we share growing concerns over hard-won gains that could be imperilled, and the condition of the Cambodian people worsened by depriving poor people of jobs and endangering their livelihoods.
A withdrawal of EBA could produce results that run counter to other rights, like the protection of vulnerable groups of people and the promotion of basic human rights embedded in the UN Charter and human rights treaties.
In terms of identities and perceptions, a withdrawal of EBA unnecessarily increases the confusion as to the notion of “human rights” in Asia where there is a need for universal values to be entrenched.
Deepening human suffering comes from the manner in which actors pursue their objectives.
A disregard for impoverished communities is understandably perceived as a worrying feature.
Economic sanctions challenge the basic sense of right and wrong and create ambiguity about human rights.
As seen in the local newspapers, a Cambodian analyst stated: “Those who are happy to see sanctions should be ashamed. They can be protagonists of human rights, they are in fact the enemy of humanity.”
Seen as harmful and unjust by affecting ordinary citizens, and driving innocents into poverty, I join openly the ones that demand a refrain from using such measures for human rights, unless the EU can provide sufficient, consistent and coherent guarantees for the protection of the political, economic, social and cultural rights of affected communities.
Shouldn’t economic sanctions be proportional and only used in the most extreme cases?
Researchers have estimated the probability of success of such measures by analysing data from past cases.
In general terms, all international sanctions combined, scholars demonstrate a low probability of success in reaching their goals: five, 22 or 30 per cent.
A high probability of failure: between 65-95 per cent of the time.
Looking at the nature of sanctions, as of today, withdrawals of the US GSP scheme and EBA have not recorded a single case of compliance.
When reinstatements have occurred, they have not been driven by the target’s compliance.The probability of success is reduced to zero.
Looking at the goal of sanctions, in this case the restoration of a democratic environment, sanctions designed for this purpose are significantly associated with higher levels of democracy.
They rarely manage to instantly create liberal democracies, but more commonly some form of electoral authoritarianism, increasing prospects for future democratisation.
However, authors warn “these findings should not be taken as evidence to justify all types of sanctions in all contexts […] There are several examples of highly unsuccessful democratic sanctions in the past”.
In general terms, international sanctions have a counterproductive effect on democracy.
There may be an increase of repression in an effort to stabilise the regime and they can create incentives for the leadership to restrict political liberties and consolidate power.
In addition, target elites might respond by changing their priorities to military spending in order to enhance their coercive capacity.
I urge the EU to carry out an impact assessment of any trade measures to be taken in response to human rights violations and balance any negative impact on the local population and affected workers against its possible effectiveness in Cambodia.
As human rights are the stated primary objective of the process of withdrawal of EBA, coherence and synergy within the EU institutions to negotiate with stakeholders in Cambodia should take place effectively.
There is a need to shift away from a focus on trade to a focus on benefits and achievements in human rights.
I regret that the decision and process are led by the Directorate General for Trade – an increased role of the directorate generals specialising in human rights and development would be more appropriate.
They should play the lead role to address the human rights situation and their expertise can ensure these issues remain the main concern.
I believe the EU’s expertise in human rights, and whose approach is to deliver results on the ground by integrating lessons learned, can contribute to attaining the objective of democratisation.
In the present situation, the process to review Cambodia’s duty-free access needs to be transparent and based on European values.
In line with the Trade Commissioner’s vision of trade as a force for good in the world, I recall any action to promote human rights cannot be justified if it has a negative impact on human rights.
The EU needs to consider as a priority the rights and well-being of ordinary citizens, with particular attention paid to the most vulnerable populations.
They should not be sacrificed.
As the final decision will depend upon the judgement of the EU and in the absence of an impartial and independent body to monitor the progress of dialogue between the EU and the Cambodian government, I urge the EU to define realistic expected results, monitor progress toward the achievement of expected results, integrate lessons learned and report on performance in all transparency. In addition, the EU should not leave itself open to accusations of double standards.
When the EU threatened Cambodia on its failure to meet human rights provisions, the bloc was in a process to conclude the “most ambitious agreement ever made with a developing country” – Vietnam.
According to the 2018 Democracy Index, Cambodia ranks 125th and Vietnam 139th. According to the 2018 press freedom index, Cambodia ranks 142nd and Vietnam 175th.
The use of double standards when it comes to democracy and human rights is counterproductive for the EU, for the credibility of its external action and, most importantly, for the very principles it promotes.
If suspension is not consistently applied, as a result the activation of the withdrawal procedure in Cambodia will be seen as subject to political and economic considerations.
The EU’s EBA offers unilateral trade preferences to Cambodia but the EU’s FTA with Vietnam removes or reduces customs tariffs in bilateral trade.
It is obvious that EU economic interests are part of the decision to refrain from imposing economic sanctions.
In the past, the EU has also been criticised for being at the forefront of the practice of linking commercial objectives with political interests through the use of conditionality clauses.
A misunderstanding of the motives of decision-making on conditionality clauses with regards to human rights would undermine the government’s awareness that Cambodia’s steps to improve rights will lead to a positive outcome.
Transparency is mandatory and I contest the use of selective conditionality and the application of double standards.
Questions of human rights need to be dealt with objectively, regardless of any economic or political gain.
In terms of democracy and political rights, in some cases, incentives can be more effective and preferable to sanctions.
As a long-timer actor of the private sector, I acknowledge the negative influence of trade on labour conditions and environmental preservation.
In this regard, a withdrawal of EBA is likely to translate into a deterioration of labour conditions and may unfairly penalise workers, including those employed in European businesses in Cambodia.
Instead, to prevent and remedy against negative impacts of trade on human and labour rights, the EU should conduct a human rights impact assessment before granting trade preferences to a candidate country and during its implementation.
These assessments should be undertaken by independent experts, in consultation with civil society, including with representatives of communities affected by trade preferences.
Arnaud Darc,CEO of Thalias Hospitality Group, Phnom Penh
Send letters to: email@example.com or PO Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length.The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.