The European Union is “very concerned” about claims that trade preferences encouraging Cambodia to export sugar to the continent are fuelling land-grabbing, forced evictions and other human rights abuses, as a visiting EU parliamentarian spoke out about the issue.
Cecilia Wikström, an EU parliamentarian from Sweden, brought the debate to the fore this week when she met with affected communities in Kampong Speu and Koh Kong provinces and called for a suspension of preferences for sugar, according to Phnom Penh Post.
Wikström said she would “never forget” the people she had met during her visit. She said she found it “devastating” to learn about the plight of families in Kampong Speu who had been displaced by an 8,343-hectare concession given to Phnom Penh Sugar Co, owned by Ly Yong Phat.
“I think we need, in the European Parliament… to look into the details and the provisions put in place in the EBA concerning human rights. In my view, they have been violated,” Wikström told The Post yesterday. “The EBA should be suspended when it comes to sugar and some other agricultural products.”
She said she had never before heard such a consistent story from so many different people: “How they are forcefully evicted from their houses. How police and military would come, how they were beaten up.”
“There is no doubt about that they have suffered,” she said.
The objectives of the EBA trade preferences include “the promotion of sustainable development and good governance in the developing countries”, according to EU regulations. Preferences can be temporarily withdrawn if there are “serious and systematic violations” of international conventions on human and labour rights, the environment or good governance. Wikström said she would pursue the issue in parliament when she returns to the EU.
Wikström met with Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, and raised her concerns over sugar plantations and rights abuses at Boeung Kak lake with several members of the National Assembly yesterday, including senior Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Cheam Yeap.
Wikström said Cheam Yeap “not give me any promises whatsoever” when she requested an investigation into alleged human rights abuses. Cheam Yeap confirmed the topics of discussion during the meeting and said he shared documents related to land disputes involving Ly Yong Phat, but declined to comment in detail.
“The government of Cambodia promised that they will do an investigation on these allegations [during a meeting in October], and they will inform the European Union [of the results]. Unfortunately, for the moment, we have not received any information as to the result of this investigation.”
The “Everything but Arms” initiative abolishes tariffs and quotas for Cambodia and other low-income countries to export goods to the EU. Sugar exports are guaranteed at a minimum price.
In September, NGOs called for a suspension of preferences for sugar, arguing that the expansion of plantations – nearly 90,000 hectares have been doled out in concessions for sugar over the past two years, primarily to firms connected to ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat – to take advantage of the European market were pushing thousands of Cambodians off their own land.
Rafael Dochao-Moreno, chargé d’affairs for the EU mission in Phnom Penh, said yesterday the issue had been brought to the Cambodian government’s attention on several occasions with no sign of progress.
“We are very concerned on … all the allegations of abuses and allegations of land abuses by the use of force,” he said.
Dachao-Moreno said sugar exports had recently “increased a lot”, though he did not have specific data on hand.
Chheang Kimsruon, a representative for Phnom Penh Sugar and Kampong Speu Sugar Company, both of which belong to the senator, called allegations that the companies were involved in human rights abuses an “injustice against the company”.