By David Pred
In the past month, the European Commission has instituted a blanket ban on Cambodian seafood imports, citing concerns that it isn’t doing enough to combat illegal fishing. It has also threatened to remove Cambodia’s preferential trade status over allegations that its rice exports are mixed with the same product from Vietnam.
Cambodia, unlike Vietnam, benefits from the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, which provides duty and quota-free access to the European market for all products excluding armaments from the world’s least developed countries.
This is the same European Commission that has strongly resisted calls for the past three years by civil society organizations and the European Parliament to withdraw trade preferences from agricultural products when producer companies are implicated in land grabbing and human rights abuses.
In recent years in Cambodia, there has been a surge in forced displacement of rural and indigenous communities resulting from large-scale land concessions granted by the government for agro-industrial development. Sugar companies, which invested in Cambodia to take advantage of the EBA preferences, have been among the worst offenders.
The Commission has claimed that it is not even able to launch an investigation into this matter because the necessary legal conditions have not been met. According to the Commission, it cannot act unless an international monitoring body has concluded that there are “serious and systematic” rights abuses taking place in the country.
In his September 2012 report, professor Surya Subedi, who was appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to monitor the situation of human rights in Cambodia, concluded that there are “well documented, serious and widespread human rights violations associated with land concessions.”
The Commission’s response? It doesn’t consider the special rapporteur an international monitoring body.
So let’s get this straight.
The European Union trade commissioner is happy to threaten to revoke Cambodia’s entire EBA status, which would target all products, over allegations that exports of one product may not have been entirely been produced in Cambodia.
And in a snap decision, the E.U. can completely ban imports of Cambodian seafood for failing to comply with the international law of the sea. These alleged violations are based entirely upon the judgment of the European Commission and not on the conclusions of any international monitoring body.
However, when it comes to the forced displacement and impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of rural Cambodians to clear the way for large-scale agribusiness operations, including those of multinational companies making a fortune exporting sugar to Europe under the EBA scheme, the Commission’s hands are apparently tied.
Over the past six years, communities in three Cambodian provinces have been uprooted, women and children made homeless and preyed upon by traffickers, and human rights defenders shot and thrown in jail for standing up to the sugar companies.
It is hypocritical that the E.U. allows these companies to peddle their dirty goods in Europe, while professing to be a beacon of universal human rights.
But it is a scandal that these criminal enterprises are actually rewarded by the E.U. with lucrative trade preferences.
The E.U. has demonstrated with illegal fishing that it can wield its trade policy as a stick on any issue to which it sees fit.
It’s time to end the charade that it has no power to take comparable action in response to the far more urgent crisis of illegal land grabbing.
David Pred is the founder and managing associate of Inclusive Development International.