Will the EU support 'the death of democracy' in Cambodia?

The EU should act as a leader on the international stage by standing up for the Cambodian people’s right to free and fair elections, writes Marc Tarabella.

Marc Tarabella | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Marc Tarabella

Marc Tarabella (BE, S&D) is co-chair of Parliament’s Bureau of the Sports Group

23 Jan 2018

On 16 November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s request to dissolve the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Cambodia’s main opposition party, based on unsubstantiated accusations of treason and collusion with the US to topple the reigning government. 

Human Rights Watch has called the supreme court’s ruling “the death of democracy” in the country. 

In Cambodia’s June commune polls, the CNRP won nearly 44 per cent of all seats, unsettling Prime Minister Hun Sen’s confidence that his party could fairly win the up-coming federal elections, set for July 2018. Hun Sen, who has already ruled for 32 years, has become increasingly authoritarian, shutting independent newspapers and radio, and placing political opponents in prison or forcing them into exile. 

Steady and unexpected electoral gains by the CNRP since 2013 have resulted in Hun Sen’s accusations of treason, leading to the imprisonment of Sam Rainsy, the founding President of the CNRP (who now lives in exile), and the CNRP’s current President, Kem Sokha. Mu Sochua, Sokha’s deputy, has fled to Europe. 

Media outlets that do not comply with the government’s narratives have been closed, including the well-known and respected Cambodia Daily Newspaper. Civil society, human rights groups and NGOs have been forced into silence.

The International Commission of Jurists have called the recent ruling “political theatre,” particularly since the President of the Supreme Court, Dith Munty, has been a member of Hun Sen’s party since 1989. Since the court’s ruling, over 50 per cent of CNRP members have been forced to flee Cambodia, effectively crippling any resistance to Hun Sen’s leadership. 

Hun Sen has re-distributed the CNRP’s current seats to other political parties, ensuring no single party will be able to threaten his leadership in the up-coming elections. 

Cambodia has been a beneficiary of the EU’s privileged ‘Everything but arms’ (EBA) scheme since 2001, allowing duty-free access to the EU for exports of all products, except arms and ammunition. Reuter’s reported that in 2016, 40 per cent of Cambodian exports went to the European Union, highlighting the EU’s strong bargaining power. 

The EU also gave Cambodia over €140m in foreign aid last year, paling only to China’s (reported) €225m. 

China, the biggest international supporter of Hun Sen’s ruling party, is unlikely to advocate for a strengthening of Cambodia’s democracy. On the contrary, the Communist Party of China (CPC) expressed their support of Hun Sen shortly after Kem Sokha’s arrest in September. 

On 14 December, the European Parliament undertook a plenary vote, recommending an asset freezing and visa restrictions for the Cambodian politicians responsible for the dissolution of the opposition party. 

Now, the EU has further opportunity to act as a leader on the international stage by standing up for the Cambodian people’s right to free and fair elections. Freedom, Democracy and Rule of Law are three of the EU’s founding values. If the EU wishes to embody these principles, we cannot continue to support a political party that is blatantly disregarding the will of its people. 

Trade policy and the promotion of human rights are not mutually exclusive. A full and thorough re-evaluation of the EU’s relationship with Cambodia is required in order to determine the best way for Europe to support the Cambodian people in this troubling time.


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