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.

© 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

LATEST

The government has failed in recent years to take steps to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence committed during the Khmer Rouge, according to the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Three Vietnamese nationals were arrested in Sihanoukville on Wednesday afternoon for kidnapping two 34-year-old Vietnamese men and demanding a $7,000 ransom from each of their families after luring them across the border on the pretense of a gambling trip, police said.

About 50 fired factory workers protested in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal court Wednesday after two of the factory’s five union representatives were summoned for questioning following strikes in February.

The appointment of General Sok Phal to head the Interior Ministry’s newly formed department to monitor migrant workers has raised concerns over his close familial connection to a labor recruitment industry fraught with human rights abuses.

As military police with AK-47s descended on protesting garment workers during their nationwide strike on January 3, Sam Ravy, a manager at one of the many factories along Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Street, was on the phone with his mother-in-law.

The Cambodia Daily | All the News Without Fear or Favor | The Daily Newspaper of Record Since 1993