EU Considers Union Appeals, Urges Government to Respect Human Rights

The E.U.’s ambassador to Cambodia said he would weigh appeals from pro-government unions critical of a call by opposition party leader Sam Rainsy to push the government to improve its human rights record through increased economic pressure.

Ambassador George Edgar added, however, that equitable and sustainable development was only possible if human rights and the rule of law were respected.

cam photo EU FDI jump reuters
Sok Chenda Sophea, center, secretary-general of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, shakes hands with EuroCham chairman Emmanuel Menanteau at the Cambodia-EU business dialogue in Phnom Penh in March. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)

Som Aun, president of the National Union Alliance Chamber of Cambodia, delivered a letter signed by 41 pro-government unions to Mr. Edgar on Friday, lobbying against tightening of Cambodia’s trade with the E.U., the largest market for Cambodia’s garment and footwear industry. It followed a similar petition from nine unions delivered earlier last week.

“The political problem is for politicians to discuss with each other, but please don’t use the economy and garment issues,” Mr. Aun said Friday. “That is the life of our workers.”

Mr. Rainsy, the CNRP leader, has faced a barrage of criticism for a speech he delivered at the European Parliament in Brussels on July 13, in which he urged members to increase pressure on the Cambodian government by reconsidering the garment sector’s duty-free access to European markets.

Mr. Edgar said in an email on Friday that access to European markets was a major driver behind economic growth that benefited all Cambodians, including the poorest, and that he was considering the unions’ appeals.

“I received the letter from Mr. Som Aun this morning and will consider its contents,” he said. “We have also received the letter from nine trade unions.”

The E.U, which bought about $3.83 billion in duty-free, Cambodian-made garments and footwear under the Everything But Arms trade agreement last year, will also look for the government to respect human rights and the rule of law, he said.

“In that context, we look to the Cambodian authorities to ensure an environment in which all political parties and civil society can carry out their legitimate roles freely and without fear of harassment or intimidation,” he added.

Mr. Rainsy has said the government misrepresented his remarks in Brussels for political gain, as he had not called for a market closure, but that did not stop about 50 garment workers from protesting outside the National Assembly on Sunday.

One of the workers, Doem Chansovan, who works at a Phnom Penh factory, said the government should appeal to the E.U. not to close the market for fear of the impact it would have on the livelihoods of workers and their families.

The workers were accompanied by political gadfly Srey Chamroeun, who spent much of the first half of this year organizing protests against opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha’s sexual morality.

Mr. Chamroeun, who has denied any formal political affiliation, said he had not spearheaded the workers’ protest, but simply “cooperated” with them. However, he raised the specter of future protests targeting the CNRP if the E.U. did act to tighten its markets.

“If the European Union accepts the request by His Excellency Sam Rainsy, at that time employees as well as union representatives will stand up against and demonstrate to dissolve the National Rescue Party,” Mr. Chamroeun said.

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