Families in Koh Kong province will today file a complaint with the U.S. government against American Sugar Refining (ASR) over farmland they claim they were violently evicted from to make way for two sugar plantations that supply the New York-based company.
The complaint comes just days after the European Parliament called on the European Commission to investigate the Cambodian government’s practice of issuing economic land concessions, and to suspend European Union trade benefits to Cambodian firms currently exporting sugar to Europe should human rights abuses be found.
The 207 Koh Kong families will file their complaint with the U.S. National Contact Point, a government office in Washington that handles disputes with multinational firms within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a statement released yesterday by the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) and EarthRights International, which are representing the families.
The families have lodged their complaint against ASR because in 2009 the firm bought the British refineries that continue to import the plantations’ sugar.
“The companies that buy the sugar produced on our stolen land share in the responsibility for our suffering,” Teang Koa, one of the evicted villagers, said in the statement. “We hope the U.S. government can help ASR to recognize this,” Mr. Koa said.
Cambodian business tycoon and CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat owned the sugar plantations when the original 450 families were forced from their land in 2006.
The eviction reportedly involved beatings and shots being fired by police.
Mr. Yong Phat has since sold his stake in the plantations to the Taiwanese firm Ve Wong, which now co-owns the plantations with Thailand’s Khon Kaen Sugar company.
In July, in the process of investigating Khon Kaen Sugar, Thailand’s Human Rights Commission published preliminary findings claiming that the evicted families had had their rights to life and self-determination “breached.”
The complaint in the U.S. is largely symbolic, admitted Man Vuthy, a case coordinator for CLEC, as the National Contact Point can push ASR into mediation with the families but cannot order it to compensate them.
ASR could not immediately be reached for comment.
The European Parliament, however, might pack more weight when it comes to investigating what activists are now calling Cambodia’s “blood sugar.”
In a resolution passed Friday in Brussels, the European Parliament called on the European Commission to investigate the government’s land concession policies through which Mr. Yong Phat and his business partners leased their sugar plantations, and consider suspending trade benefits that let firms export their sugar to Europe duty free.
Rights groups accuse such concessions—which now cover about 10 percent of Cambodia’s total land area—of forcing some 400,000 families off their land over the past decade. They also accuse the government of suppressing anti-eviction protests with increasing violence and of targeting advocates trying to help affected communities.
Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a freeze on all new land concessions in May, though at least a dozen new concessions have received licenses since then. The government claims they were in the process of being granted long before the moratorium.
While Friday’s resolution does not force the European Commission to investigate, Wolfgang Moser, Germany’s ambassador to Cambodia, said it would have “difficulty” ignoring the call.
“Such an investigation is to be taken very seriously, and this is the first step in that direction,” Mr. Moser said.
“The European Parliament has some power,” he added. “So of course the European Commission will have difficulty to disregard such a request.”
But he cautioned that there was still no telling whether the commission would follow through.
European Parliament member Cecilia Wikstrom, of Sweden, has been calling for the end of trade benefits to Cambodian sugar since visiting the country in May 2011.
Ms. Wikstrom was heartened by the resolution and glad to see that her amendment, which specifically called for an investigation, had remained in the resolution, her assistant, Caroline Klamer, wrote in an email.
“It is true…that a resolution by the Parliament is in no way binding for the commission, but it is a very strong message,” Ms. Klamer said.
“Until now, Ms. Wikstrom only had herself behind this appeal, but now she is backed by the whole Parliament and that obviously makes a much stronger case that the commission cannot ignore.”
In a letter to concerned NGOs in August, European commissioner for trade, Karel de Gucht, said the commission would “not hesitate” to launch an investigation if international monitoring bodies concluded that land concessions in Cambodia were causing “serious and systematic” rights violations.
In a report on Cambodia’s economic land concessions to the U.N. Human Rights Council in September, Cambodia’s special rapporteur for human rights, Surya Subedi, wrote: “There are well documented, serious and widespread human rights violations associated with land concessions that need to be addressed through remediation.”