Clothing store in Cambodia

Cambodia is a major exporter of textile products and H&M is one of the largest buyers.


Use trade to pressure the regime in Cambodia

In recent years, Cambodia has gone against a dictatorship. Independent media have been shut down, the opposition party has been banned and critics of the regime have been imprisoned. At the same time, we import clothes and other goods cheaply from the country. It is good that the EU is now changing its favorable trade agreement with Cambodia, writes the Social Democrats' trade policy spokesperson Åsa Eriksson.

The power of Tep Vanny's voice - when I met her in prison outside Phnom Penh - was probably what seriously aroused my commitment to Cambodia. When she and others sacrifice their lives in the struggle for democracy, we all have a responsibility to pull a small straw to the pile of justice for the Cambodian people. In my assignment as a Member of Parliament, I fight with trade policy as a weapon.

The development in Cambodia has been for several years gone to the wrong hole. Hun Sen's government banned the opposition party from appearing to win elections. The government has also systematically used the military and police for violations of all human rights. Anyone who dares to criticize the regime - or stands up for their rights - risks being thrown in jail. Cambodians are asking the outside world for help to get rid of the regime. It has corrupted the whole society and is trying by all means to eliminate what threatens the regime's power.

Tep Vanny is one of many Cambodians who lost their home in 2008, when the area around Lake Boeung Kak was sold to a private company to make way for luxury properties. The residents around the lake were evicted and their houses leveled. Since then, Tep Vanny has demonstrated that she and other victims around Cambodia should receive compensation for their stolen land. She was arrested in 2016 during a peaceful demonstration in support of imprisoned human rights activists. Six months later, she was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. This is the third time she has been imprisoned. The meeting with her and another female activist in prison was an extremely powerful experience. I have seldom felt as powerless as a politician.

After more than 700 days in prison, when neighbors were helped to take care of her two children, Tep Vanny was released but not acquitted. Crowds of Cambodians who are fighting for their and others' human rights are imprisoned - or have had their lives destroyed in other ways. Independent media have been shut down, opposition leaders arrested and dissidents harassed, imprisoned and murdered. Ordinary Cambodians are lawless in the hands of it corrupt leadership.

Formed an association for Cambodia

After my first trip to Cambodia in 2017, I joined forces with some members of parliament and others who are fighting in various ways for respect for human rights in the country. We formed the party-politically independent association Initiativ Cambodia. Our aim is to form opinion in Sweden and the EU - and support everyone who fights for democracy and human rights in Cambodia. We have arranged seminars in the Riksdag with Cambodian human rights activists, written letters of protest to Prime Minister Hun Sen, courted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sida and written debate articles. Most important of all is to show the Cambodians who still dare to fight for their rights that we see them, we listen to them and we give them our support.

The repression in Cambodia is well documented in reports from UN Special Rapporteurs and from international human rights organizations. In January, some from the Cambodia Initiative traveled to the country's capital, Phnom Penh, and met with a large number of civil society representatives. All testified to increasing repression and increased corruption. Cambodia has undoubtedly become a dictatorship.

Cambodia is a major exporter of textile products and H&M is one of the largest buyers. All goods have been able to be imported duty free to Sweden and other EU countries with the help of the favorable trade agreement Everything But Arms (EBA). Exports to the EU have increased by 600 percent since Cambodia was given the opportunity to EBA and it has contributed to the country's economic growth. Only the poorest countries can get an EBA agreement with the EU and one of the basic criteria is that the country in question commits itself to working for greater democracy and respect for human rights. On the contrary, since 2017, the state of democracy and human rights has seriously deteriorated, prompting the EU to review Cambodia's favorable trade conditions.

Important with sustainable and fair trade

Trade agreements are a powerful tool in the fight for equality and more sustainable development. Sweden always insists in the EU negotiations on new free trade agreements that demands be made on environmental and climate considerations (for example, living up to the commitments in the Paris Agreement), on workers' terms (for example, ratifying ILO conventions) and that the development that trade leads to benefit everyone, both men and women. With sustainable and fair trade, we can contribute to economic development in other countries, an increased focus on sustainability, respect for human rights and that more countries improve workers' conditions. In the dialogue on trade conditions, there is often a development in a progressive direction, although this unfortunately does not characterize the negotiations with some of the largest economies.

In February, the European Commission decided to partially suspend the EBA agreement due to Cambodia's widespread violations of the right to political participation and freedom of expression and assembly. The EU will later this year impose tariffs on certain textile products and shoes as well as all sugar. About one-fifth of Cambodia's annual exports to the Union are affected. It will be a severe blow to the economy, although the corona crisis and missed Chinese investment are probably even worse.

At a time when democracy is being pushed back globally, it is important that we in the EU stand up for human rights and use our trade as a tool to assist defenders of democracy. It pains me that workers are now at risk of losing their jobs, but we must listen to the brave civil society representatives we met in Phnom Penh. They unanimously said that it would hurt for a while to suspend the EBA, but the EU must use this trading tool to force the regime to reform. It is an opportunity to give Tep Vanny, her children and all other Cambodians a chance for a brighter future.

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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