EU Won’t Investigate Land Concessions—for Now
By | May 20, 2013

The trade commissioner and foreign affairs representative of the European Union (E.U.) have turned down a request from 13 members of the European Parlia­ment that they immediately investigate Cambodia’s much criticized economic land concessions, but said they were monitoring the issue closely.

In a March letter to Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht and the E.U.’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, the lawmakers asked for an immediate investigation into the concessions, which they accuse of a raft of human rights abuses. They also asked that if the investigation corroborated their claims that the E.U. suspend the duty free access Cambodian exports currently enjoy to Europe under the Everything But Arms trade scheme—part of the E.U.’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP).

Their request followed a resolution to the same effect passed by the entire European Parliament in October.

In a joint May 15 response to the 13 lawmakers, Mr. de Gucht and Ms. Ashton implied that the conditions for an investigation had not yet been met but left the door open for one should the situation worsen.

“The European Commission is keeping the situation under close review,” they said. “If the legal conditions for the activation of withdrawal procedures set out in the GSP regulation are met, the Commission will be ready to take action if this appears to be the case.”

The commission currently re­quires that human rights violations be “serious and systematic” before it launches an investigation that could strip a country of GSP benefits. In a report on Cam­bodia’s land concessions last year, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights to the country, Surya Subedi, said that rights violations tied to the concessions were “serious and widespread.”

While they shared the lawmakers’ concerns about Cambodia’s land concessions, Mr. de Gucht and Ms. Ashton said, “our ap­proach is, however, to use the tools that are legally feasible and best serve the purpose of the sustainable development of Cambodia.”

They also said that the E.U. had expressed its concerns to Cam­bodia at the “highest level.”

At a meeting with Prime Min­ister Hun Sen in November, European Council President Herman van Rompuy stressed the E.U.’s concerns about both the concessions and that July’s national election be free and fair.

Mr. de Gucht said he himself stressed the E.U.’s land concession concerns “in no uncertain terms” in meetings this year and last with Cambodian Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh.

“I reminded the minister of the impact that a withdrawal from the Everything But Arms scheme would have for the Cambodian economy and urged the Cambodian government to continue its efforts to improve the situation and to pay attention to transparency and sustainability concerns,” Mr. de Gucht said in the letter.

Cambodian exports to the E.U. grew twice as much as the country’s exports to any other trade partner in 2012 and topped $2.3 billion for the year, according to the E.U.’s latest figures.

While garments make up most of the trade, the E.U. has come under particular fire for giving duty free access to Cambodian sugar due to the rights abuses alleged at a pair of Koh Kong province plantations growing the commodity. Hundreds of local families accuse the plantations of stealing their farms, sometimes violently, and offering them little to no compensation.

Two hundred of those families are now suing U.K. sugar firm Tate & Lyle—which buys from the plantations through their Thai owners—in London for millions in compensation.

For its part, the Cambodian government says such land concessions are a vital part of its efforts to lift rural communities out of poverty.

In their letter, Mr. de Gucht and Ms. Ashton praised a pair of land reform initiatives the government launched last year, one to temporarily freeze the granting of new land concessions while it re­views the legality of those that al­ready exist and another to furnish hundreds of thousands of families with new private land titles. Taken together, Mr. de Gucht and Ms. Ashton called them a “first step” in ensuring Cambodia’s land rights.

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Free Trade Union President Chea Mony on Monday became the second union leader to be placed under judicial supervision this month by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for alleged criminal activity during nationwide garment worker strikes in December and January.

Phnom Penh dentist Eng Lykuong, who alleges she was defrauded of $1 million by a Cambodia-based company, on Monday rejected government spokesman Phay Siphan’s accusation that she had attacked his reputation by revealing that he had acted on behalf of one of the defendants in the case, jailed Cambodian-American businessman Richer San.

At least 10 environmental activists, including a Spanish national, were detained in Koh Kong province Monday after they attempted to prevent officials from reaching a community of ethnic minority villagers who have been protesting plans for a hydropower dam that would flood their ancestral home and a critical wildlife habitat.

A soldier who wounded an ethnic Bunong man when he fired in his direction while guarding a rubber concession in Mondolkiri province earlier this month will not be arrested because the victim suffered only a “small injury,” police said Monday.

Before she was brutally murdered in February, Va Dary felt like a prisoner in her own home —a two-story gated residence given to her by the two-star military general charged on Sunday with killing her and their 6-year-old daughter, her mother said Monday.

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