More than 55,000 people have joined an online petition set up by a pair of French nongovernment groups urging the European Union (E.U.) to immediately launch an investigation into local sugar plantations accused of illegally evicting hundreds of Cambodian families.
At the center of the dispute are a pair of Koh Kong province plantations jointly owned by Thai and Taiwanese firms accused of stealing land from local farmers, sometimes violently. U.K. firm Tate & Lyle has been importing the sugar duty free under the E.U.’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, and the Koh Kong families want the benefits from the trade deal to end.
Local NGO Equitable Cambodia reached out to ActionAid and Peuples Solidaires to launch a petition on the families’ behalf on September 18, addressed to E.U. Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht.
“In Cambodia, sugar companies are evicting rural populations from their land in a climate of violence and serious human rights violations. These violations are encouraged by the commercial advantages that come from the European initiative Everything But Arms,” the petition reads.
“I ask you to do everything you can so that the E.U.: launches an immediate investigation into the violation of rights linked to Cambodia’s agricultural production benefiting from EBA; suspends EBA preferential treatment for Cambodian agricultural production for as long as these violations last.”
The E.U. did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
This is not the first time the E.U. has been asked to investigate Cambodia’s sugar industry. Rights groups have been asking for an investigation for years. In March, a group of 13 E.U. parliamentarians joined them, but Mr. de Gucht and Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s high representative for foreign affairs, said the conditions for a probe were not yet met.
“The European Commission is keeping the situation under close review,” they said in a May reply to the lawmakers. “If the legal conditions for the activation of withdrawal procedures set out in the [generalized system of preferences] 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 such trade 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 Cambodia’s agri-business land concessions were “serious and widespread.”
Equitable Cambodia executive director Eang Vuthy said that under E.U. guidelines Mr. Subedi’s reports, as a U.N.-mandated human rights monitor, ought to be enough to trigger the investigation they have been asking for.
“They [E.U. leaders] have to respect their own policies to investigate the situation…. They cannot delay and they cannot make excuses,” he said, blaming their decision not to investigate on an overriding wish to maintain good business and diplomatic relations with Cambodia.
Mr. Vuthy said the petition is emailed to the E.U. trade commissioner each time someone joins and that they had already reached their goal of 50,000 signatories. He said they would discuss with ActionAid how much longer to keep it going.
About 200 families are currently suing Tate & Lyle in the U.K. over its sugar imports. The case is expected to go to trial some time early next year.