Drawing from a long list of human rights abuses, the European Parliament has urged the Cambodian government to stop forced evictions, called on the European Commission (E.C.) to investigate the country’s controversial land concessions policy, and raised the prospect of sanctions.
In a resolution passed Friday in Brussels, the Parliament also condemned two recent high-profile murders and court cases and urged the government to fix “major flaws” in its election process.
The resolution is the strongest and highest level rebuke of Cambodia’s human rights record in recent years from the European Union (E.U.), Cambodia’s largest aid donor.
Though the resolution does not force the (E.C.) to act, it does call on the commission “to investigate the escalation of human rights abuses in Cambodia as a result of economic land concessions…and to temporarily suspend [Everything But Arms] preferences on agricultural products from Cambodia in cases where human rights abuses are identified.”
National and international human rights groups have singled out such concessions to large, well-connected agri-business firms as the leading rights issue now facing Cambodia, and blamed the policy for displacing hundreds of thousands of people across the country, often without due process and usually driving families further into poverty. After a record year of government-issued licensing in 2011, land concessions now cover 2 million hectares, about 10 percent of the country’s entire land mass.
Through loopholes and a loose application of the rules, the government has granted many of those concessions in pristine, protected forests and well above the maximum legal size limits of 10,000 hectares.
In his latest report, the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, also singled out the concessions for criticism and noted no discernable benefits for the average Cambodian.
Prime Minister Hun Sen in May ordered an immediate freeze on all new economic land concessions and a legal review of the ones that exist. But at least a dozen new concessions have come to light since the moratorium, which government officials claim were in the works before the announcement.
Beyond land concessions, Friday’s resolution accuses Cambodia’s security forces of using “excessive force” against protesters and “deplores” the murders of environment activist Chut Wutty in April and of 14-year-old Heng Chantha in May during a forced eviction, both by security forces.
The Koh Kong Provincial Court recently dropped its investigation into Chut Wutty’s murder, however, because his suspected killer was also dead. Government officials have dismissed the need to investigate the murder of Heng Chantha because they say it was an “accident.”
The Parliament also called for the immediate release of Beehive Radio station owner Mam Sonando and “condemned” what it called the politically motivated conviction of opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
Mr. Sonando was handed a 20-year prison sentence on October 1 on charges of fomenting an insurrection in rural Kratie province. Rights groups called the charges “trumped up” to silence one of the country’s few independent voices on the radio. Some of the country’s foreign donors joined them in condemning the verdict.
Mr. Rainsy is in self-imposed exile avoiding a 11-year sentence for uprooting temporary border posts along Cambodian’s frontier with Vietnam and for posting maps of the disputed border area online.
With national elections due in July, the resolution also said there are “major flaws” in the election process, noted the E.U.’s conclusion that the last national elections in 2008 failed to meet international standards, and urged the government to adopt the electoral reforms proposed by Mr. Subedi, the U.N.’s human rights envoy.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, called the resolution’s claims unfair and said that any human rights abuses tied to land concessions were an “irregularity,” not the norm.
“If there is one bad tree, does it mean the forest in bad? I don’t think so,” Mr. Siphan said, downplaying the prospect of losing free trade access to Europe.
“If they feel they cannot do business with Cambodia, they should do it,” he said. “We still keep the E.U. as a good friend.”
As for the murders and court cases against activists, Mr. Siphan said the local courts were well equipped to do their job.
“We have a rule of law and a court to take care of that issue. Making noise does not help,” he said.
Mr. Siphan also asked the E.U. to stop criticizing Cambodia and step up aid assistance.
“The E.U. should pay attention to strengthen the rule of law rather than [play] politics.”
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua welcomed Friday’s resolution in Europe.
“The E.U. Parliament has taken a step forward to render justice to the victims of the Cambodian government’s economic land concession policy,” Ms. Sochua said in post to her personal blog Saturday.
“This is the first time that we can see a sign of hope,” she said. “With mounting pressure from all fronts, including taking these companies to court, there is hope that the global blood sugar campaign is showing success. The next step is the actual suspension of the Everything But Arms scheme.”
Land concessions that produce and export sugar to Europe, duty free, under the E.U.’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme has come in for particular rebuke by human rights and other groups.
According to E.U. trade records, Cambodian sugar plantations—which are accused of violently driving hundreds of families off their land—exported $14.6 million worth of sugar to the U.K. with the help of EBA last year, more than double the value exported the year before.
The evicted families have accused security forces of burning their homes and beating them during the eviction. At least two say they were shot.
Families and NGOs leading a campaign to get E.U. consumers to boycott the Cambodian companies invested in the plantations and selling their product have dubbed the exports “blood sugar.”
The European Parliament resolution does not force the E.C. to investigate the concessions. But it should help remind the E.U. of its legal obligations to not contribute to human rights abuses, said Shiwei Ye, Southeast Asia representative for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights.
“Foot dragging and half-cooked excuses for inaction will only further contribute to the perception that the E.U. only respects human rights when it is politically expedient,” he said.
Coming from elected parliamentarians, the resolution also carries with it the will of the European people, said David Pred of Inclusive Development International, one of the NGOs behind the sugar boycott campaign.
“If the commission doesn’t launch an investigation now, it will send the message that companies that grab poor people’s land, burn their homes and shoot those who protest are not only welcome to export their goods to Europe, but they’ll receive special trade privileges when they do,” he said.
“This is the message that the European Parliament clearly rejected on Friday. Now let’s see if the bureaucrats will listen.”