Will EBA loss help or harm rights?

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
By some estimates, the garment sector alone employs 800,000 people, representing approximately 86 per cent of total factory workers. Post pix

Last month, the EU finally announced it had formally set in motion the 18-month process of withdrawing Cambodia’s eligibility from its preferential Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement – a scheme which provides Cambodia tariff-free and quota-free access to the European market for all exports except arms and ammunition.

The announcement was not totally unexpected. Still, it shook the country’s political system, dented business and investor confidence, and set off waves of anxiety among workers across the nation’s capital.

And there are plenty of reasons for that uproar.

Directly and indirectly, the EBA has contributed significantly to the Kingdom’s overall economy, job creation and growth, particularly in the garment and agricultural sectors.

By some estimates, the garment sector alone employs 800,000 people, representing approximately 86 per cent of total factory workers.

Also, according to EU data, the Kingdom’s total export to the EU reached €5 billion in 2017, the second highest among all EBA beneficiaries.

Clearly, the EBA’s privileges and benefits are not without conditions. In some respects, the EBA is a form of social contract between the EU and each beneficiary country, whereby the former expects the latter to fulfil its obligations to uphold and promote basic principles of human rights, labour rights, freedom of expression and association, and accountability as outlined in various international accords and conventions.

Having observed a certain deterioration of these principles in the Kingdom, the EU feels morally compelled and justified to do something to redress the situation, and rightfully so.

Nonetheless, some critics question whether EBA withdrawal, which amounts to an economic sanction, is the right thing to do.

Others regret such a measure and view it as a classic blanket or collective punishment.

‘Moral breach?’

In several communiques and news releases, the EU officials cited concerns over the decline of human rights as the de facto reason behind their recent move, and hinted that the current review process could lead to a fully fledged sanction unless the Cambodian government made genuine progresses or improvements on the issue.

Ironically, one may ask: Doesn’t a collective punishment in itself ultimately constitute a violation of human rights and a “moral breach” of the Geneva Convention in modern peacetime?

On the effects of sanctions on human rights, UN Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy has called for greater protection for innocent civilians caught in the sanctions crossfire.

He was quoted in a news release published on the UN Human Rights website on November 8 last year as saying: “While the right of states to disagree with each other should be respected, harming the human rights of ordinary civilians should not be resorted to as a means of political pressure on a targeted government.”

Likewise, many other diplomats, academics and activists around the globe have joined forces to voice their concerns over the adverse impacts, with catastrophic and unintended consequences, of sanctions on the general populations of the targeted countries, urging that human rights and jus cogens (peremptory norms) be given full consideration and act as limitations on the scope and duration of sanctions.

After World War II, economic or trade sanctions have emerged as a preferred or convenient foreign policy instrument for a Western bloc seeking to assert its influence in different parts of the world without resorting to military engagements. As these sanctions proliferate, numerous independent international studies have been conducted on the global scale to assess their humanitarian impacts in sanctioned countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

As the findings of these studies shine a light on the effectiveness and ethical cost of such sanctions, they also point out that blanket and indiscriminate international (economic) sanctions have proved so far and in many cases to be ineffective, if not counterproductive, in the fight against human rights and labour rights violations in developing countries.

To a large degree, the sanctions themselves contribute to increasing infant mortality rates, poverty and violence – inflicting widespread suffering in the vulnerable segment of the population and causing further harm to human rights, which they originally set out to protect.

Some experts estimate that between 670,000 and 880,000 Iraqi children under five perished as a result of the impoverished conditions caused by sanctions.

In the case of the international boycott on the Congolese mining sector, the UN reported a massive loss of more than 750,000 jobs – provoking a severe impact on child health and an increase of 143 per cent in the infant mortality rate.

This humanitarian suffering, albeit unintended, could practically happen right here in the Kingdom.

As mentioned earlier, the Cambodian garment sector, which has burgeoned under the current EBA agreement, directly employs 800,000 workers alone.

There is no question that a complete and abrupt EBA withdrawal will trigger massive unemployment with a domino effect rippling across multiple economic sectors in the Kingdom, causing a sudden surge in poverty, hunger and violence nationwide.

Under such conditions, human rights are among the first casualties – they are the least unemployed people will worry about. It is naive and delusional to think that human and labour rights and the like will somehow survive, let alone thrive or become stronger on an empty stomach in any developing country.

Apparent paradoxes

In terms of changing the Cambodian government’s behaviour and approach vis-a-vis its handling of human rights, which is the ultimate objective behind the looming EBA withdrawal, the end result may prove disappointing, if the findings of past studies on similar tactics applied on sanctioned governments in other countries are any indication.

The government is likely to search for new trading avenues and shift its focus to other trading partners – effectively and conveniently allowing it to survive and create an economic bulwark against the EU’s move, with the initial shock of massive job losses and exorbitant social tolls blamed entirely on those who enacted the withdrawal.

All of this is not in any way to suggest the EU should remain idle or indifferent to any form of human rights abuses or violations in the Kingdom – far from it – but to draw their attention to the apparent paradoxes and quandaries of the sanction in terms of its effectiveness, catastrophic and unintended consequences and ethical cost.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

With potentially a million jobs hanging in the balance, anxious business owners and leaders, workers and union groups, and independent observers can only hope that the EU’s EBA review process will reach a just conclusion.

To paraphrase famous 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who fights wrongdoers should look to it that he himself does not become a wrongdoer.”

Davan Long is a Cambodian expat residing in Montreal, Canada.