German MEP: EU should not deal with Thai military junta

Conditions on Thai fishing vessels are still awful. A Commission report is due soon on whether the EU should introduce an import ban. [Serge Sedov/Flickr]

The threat of a ban on fish imports hangs over Thailand if it does not do more to combat human trafficking, slave labour and illegal fishing. Europe must use its lucrative markets as leverage, urged Barbara Lochbihler in an interview with EURACTIV Germany. 

Barbara Lochbihler is the foreign affairs and human rights spokesperson for the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) and Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights.

Lochbihler spoke to EURACTIV Germany’s Nicole Sagener.

In January, an EU delegation made the trip to Thailand to check how the Southeast Asian country has progressed in its reforms of the fishing sector. Soon, a ruling will be issued on whether there should be a ban on the import of fish products. Thailand’s deputy prime minister has announced that the EU was satisfied with his country’s progress. What progress are they talking about and what aspects of the sector need to be examined more critically?

Undoubtedly, important measures regarding structural reforms have been proposed and initiated. But, the fact that human rights violations, violence, slavery, human trafficking and illegal fishing are still prevalent means that there is still much to do. There needs to be clear political will to implement reforms quickly.

>>Read: EU labour rights activist pleads not guilty to Thai defamation charges

The influence of the EU’s markets cannot be underestimated here. The Union has to use this influence to achieve the common goal of sustainable, legal and, above all, ethical production in the Thai fishing industry. It is of huge importance that the issue of human rights not disappear from the spotlight and that it is made a condition of any trading agreements. Since the EU’s rules on illegal fishing (IUU) do not make mention of human rights, political negotiations must pay particular heed to the issue. Especially when it comes to the question of whether to issue a red card or not.

Do you believe that European consumers should put pressure on countries like Thailand, by boycotting their products, or is this a matter purely for politics?

Certainly, a targeted boycott would help build economic and political pressure on companies and governments to affect change. However, in my view, this would only be useful if it was part of a far-reaching campaign. On has to take into account that such a targeted boycott could end up having negative consequences for the local people.

The boycott would also have to take in other goods that are produced under questionable human rights, ecological or working conditions. There are already policies in place that work towards ethical trade and require trading partners to observe human rights, using the influence of the European markets as leverage.

>>Read: Smartphone batteries linked to human rights violations

That does not mean that we consumers are excused from our responsibilities and we should be clued up on what ends up on our plates. I believe this is extremely important, because then everyone can make an informed decision about whether they want to support bad working conditions, overfishing, people trafficking and slavery.

Beyond the fishing sector, Thailand has also been criticised for its lack of freedom of the press as expression, as well as its treatment of minorities. What demands should the EU be making to the Thai government in this regard?

It must not be business as usual for EU-Thailand relations, so long as the military government takes no decisive steps to implement a democratic process. The constitution has to be restored and a general election has to be called. Human rights are not just being whitewashed in the fishing sector, there are arbitrary arrests, martial law is in place and many people like activists, human rights advocates, dissidents, journalists and peaceful protesters are being incarcerated.

The right to freedom of expression and assembly has also been severely limited. The most blatant breaches of basic human rights come with the continued torture and execution of prisoners.

>>Read: Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk: The EU forgot its values

The EU has to exert political and economic pressure on Thailand to respect the agreements it has signed, such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention of the International Labour Organisation.

Negotiations pertaining to a free trade agreement and a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement have to remain on ice so long as the military junta is in power. The EU should only proceed with such agreements in the long-term if Thailand respects clear benchmarks that guarantee progress on human rights. This would have to be followed up with routine progress reports.

Animal rights and environmental protection groups have praised the EU’s fight against illegal fishing. However, measures carried out by the member states still need to be better coordinated, since the approach across the bloc is not uniform. What, in your opinion, is the important issue here?

At a meeting between the Commission and experts sent by the member states a few weeks ago, it became abundantly clear that there remains a lot of work to be done and that there is, currently, not that much being implemented. Sanctions are clearly inadequate, both in terms of financial impact and administrative measures.

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