BRUSSELS – The European Union has called on Cambodia to release 21 jailed activists and protesters and told the government during high level talks held here this week that a failure to reform the judiciary and electoral process could have severe consequences for the ruling party by the time of the 2018 national election.
According to a senior E.U. official who was present at a four-day joint committee meeting in the Belgian capital that concluded on Thursday, the E.U. expressed their concerns on a raft of issues, but stopped short of threatening a reduction in the level of development cooperation and trade assistance granted to Cambodia.
“They must reform now because they are not sure at all about the next election and they really think they could lose, so that’s why it’s in their interest to reform and also to be seen as the agent of progress, a modernizing party, bringing growth and prosperity to everybody,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
During the talks, officials from Cambodia and the E.U. covered a host of issues including trade, administrative and judicial reform and human rights.
On Monday, outside the European Commission building, about 100 Cambodians living in Europe gathered with banners calling for an end to the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen and brandished pictures of the blood-soaked garment factory protesters who were shot dead by military police on January 3 on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng street.
Officials from Cambodia, who were led by Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Ouch Borith, walked away from the talks on Thursday having earned the confidence of their E.U. counterparts after they presented a list of areas where the government is willing to reform.
“They gave us some benchmarks indicators which could then be easily monitored. So that was very important to hear that from them,” the E.U. official said. “Of course, we were not in a position in the meeting to assess the progress they have made. But they gave us some reassurance that they would adopt these laws quite rapidly,” she said, referring to the independence of the judiciary.
According to a copy of a new draft law on the Status of Judges and Prosecutors, obtained on Thursday by The Cambodia Daily, a code of ethics for judges does not prohibit their membership in political parties.
Senior members of the judiciary currently occupy positions in the very highest echelons of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-ruling CPP, and the judiciary has long been accused of subservience to the ruling party.
“We very much insisted on the importance of the judiciary for various reasons, be it for accountability of the government, for the trust of the people in the institutions and to fight against corruption, which is a strong element of development,” the E.U. official said.
“We also expressed our concern about the fact that in the latest meeting between the opposition and the ruling party there was no agreement on the reform of the National Election Committee. So we expressed our concern.”
In Phnom Penh, the E.U. is currently trying to convince the government to help thousands of families that have had their homes and farms seized by sugar plantations that export sugar to Europe duty free. Affected families and rights groups want the E.U. to suspend those trade benefits, which fall under the E.U.’s Everything But Arms trade scheme.
In a statement released by the E.U. on Thursday, Mr. Borith was quoted as saying that EU-sponsored programs and projects have made a significant positive impact on the living conditions of the Cambodian people.
Among the protesters outside the European Commission on Monday was Thai Makara, a representative for the CNRP in Europe who said the E.U. must apply more pressure on Mr. Hun Sen’s government to improve the human rights situation.
“All the people here they pay [European] tax. So, as taxpayers, we would like to ask the European committee to think about their help because…when workers went on strike for a minimum wage of $160 they sent the forces to kill them,” he said.