Cambodia Must Move Beyond its “Double Standard” Narrative

Cambodian garment workers working
Cambodian garment workers working

Cambodia must jettison its narrative claiming that the European Union has practiced double standards when the bloc decided to withdraw its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, which Cambodia has enjoyed since 2001.

On Aug. 12, the EU’s decision to partially withdraw the EBA trade scheme from Cambodia came into force, resulting in a loss of about one-fifth of its tariff-free and quota-free exports to the EU market.

In response to the EU’s decision to withdraw its EBA trade scheme, the Cambodian government has used a narrative along the lines of “the EU’s double standards” to influence public opinion. This narrative has not helped to address the economic and political challenges facing the country. As a matter of fact, it appears to be counterproductive, potentially preventing constructive dialogue between Cambodia and the EU.

Cambodia has already lost part of the benefits it has received from the EBA preferences. Therefore, the government and its officials should refrain from accusing the EU or promoting narratives that only provoke divisions among Cambodians and potentially lead to further loss of trade benefits.

In fact, it may be reasonable to continue dubbing the EU’s EBA decision as “extreme injusticeor “double standards” by comparing the EU’s treatment of Cambodia to how it treats other countries in Southeast Asia; however, claiming that the EU is immoral, unjust and hypocritical will do nothing to regain the EBA status or improve the status quo. Neither can it support Cambodia’s economic recovery plan post-COVID-19.

It is crucial to understand that Cambodia still needs the EU and other key partners such as the United States. Thus, Cambodia must not only refrain from actions that are seen as serving China’s core strategic interests but also reverse its democratic backsliding that has triggered the EU’s trade sanctions as well as the U.S.’s visa sanctions and asset freeze imposed on several of Cambodia’s top officials for contributing to human rights violations and democratic setbacks.

Cambodia should focus on improving the human rights situation on the ground and end the growing repression on its citizen. Since August, the government has arrested 14 environmental activists and youth – a move that seems to show no sign of slowing down.

Prominent union leader Rong Chhun, a long-time government critic, was arrested in July by speaking out about alleged irregularities concerning border demarcation with Vietnam. Many of the recent arrests and those in the past months have been seen as arbitrary, with an aim to silence dissident voices.

The continuation of repression and authoritarian turn will certainly draw more criticism and sanctions, impacting on the government’s efforts to sustain economic growth and recover Cambodia’s failing economy hit by COVID-19. The combined effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the EBA withdrawal will continue to wreak havoc on the country’s export-driven economy, potentially putting an end to its vibrant garment industries that are now in danger as around 250 factories have so far suspended operations. This is not to mention the severe impact of COVID-19 on other sectors such as tourism, education and entertainment, among others.

It is therefore high time for Cambodia to constructively and meaningfully engage the EU to avoid losing more benefits, particularly those given under the EBA trade arrangements. Harping on the EU’s unfair treatment or double standards will bring Cambodia nowhere. The EU has already stated that the partial withdrawal of EBA was due to “serious and systematic concerns related to human rights” in Cambodia.

The EU has further noted that if Cambodia made a “substantial improvement” in human rights and labor rights, it would consider restoring “fully free access” to the EU market for Cambodian products. In this regard, it seems that the key to regaining the full EBA status or retaining what is left is in the hands of the Cambodian government. It comes down to the matter of prioritization, willingness and commitment.

What is the Cambodian government’s main priority? National interests or regime survival? What is the government’s willingness? Finding an acceptable compromise with the EU or continuing to criticize the bloc’s decision on the grounds of protecting Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty? What is the government’s commitment? Improving the human rights situation and the rule of law in the country or pursuing the politics of repression on its citizens, especially the opposition group? These are the questions that will determine the fate of the EBA status and other trade privileges as well as the future of Cambodia in the near and immediate future.

Cambodia has found itself in a challenging position amid the U.S.-China strategic competition for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. To avoid being caught in the middle of great power rivalry, the country needs to adopt a smart and flexible foreign policy. It must continue to restore and improve its relations with the U.S. that has reached a new low in recent years.

Meanwhile, Cambodia needs to promote human rights and democratic values to avoid further loss of the EBA scheme and more damage to its tarnished international image.

In addition to working to diversify its export markets, revitalize its underdeveloped agricultural industry and undertake reforms to state institutions, Cambodia needs to prioritize education, research and technology adoption. The country must push for the development of more technocratic leaders, technicians and knowledge workers. It also needs to improve business environment to boost investment and increase competitiveness.

More importantly, Cambodia must make greater efforts to promote inclusive growth and sustainable development, especially bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. Providing more freedom for its citizens to voice their concerns on issues of significance to them and their community rather than restricting and silencing them using force and legal means should be promoted.

No doubt, there are a lot of challenges that confront Cambodia as it endeavors to transition into an upper middle-income country by 2030 and achieve other short and long-term goals, including catching up with its peers in the region; however, while trying to realize those goals, Cambodia must first move beyond the EU “double standard” narrative.

Kimkong Heng is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland in Australia and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP). He is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. All views expressed are his own.

A similar version of this article was published in the Diplomat.