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.