The Cambodia dilemma: foreign affairs and human rights in tension

The European Union and the United States face a Cambodia dilemma. Being hard on Cambodia forces Phnom Penh to further align with China – a broader global trend Europe and the US seek to prevent amid China’s ascent as a global power. However, implementing soft measures only fosters the rise of authoritarian states in Southeast Asia. So, what should be done?

Since the European Union began a process of withdrawal of Cambodia’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trade status — in November 2018 and decided in February 2020 to partially suspend Cambodia’s trade privileges under the EBA scheme, two conflicting narratives have emerged.

For the EU, it kicked off the EBA suspension process because the bloc perceives that Cambodia, a beneficiary of its EBA trade scheme, violates human and labour rights. In particular, the EU is of the belief that Cambodia’s democracy has declined after the unprecedented crackdown on freedom of the press and on the opposition group. The trade sanctions it imposes on Cambodia are intended to reverse the latter’s drift away from democracy.

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