Human Rights Situation in Pakistan and its GSP+ Status

Human Rights Situation in Pakistan and its GSP+ Status

According to the European Commission, countries benefiting from the special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance, the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), have several common features. This scheme provides for a total abolition of customs duties for vulnerable low-income and lower-middle income countries that have ratified the 27 GSP+ relevant international conventions on human and labour rights, environmental protection and good governance. Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Thierry Mariani raised concerns regarding human rights violations in Pakistan and requested the  Commission’s justification for Pakistan’s GSP+ status extension.

Pakistan benefits from the GSP+ preferential agreement to the extent that more than 75 % of its products which enter the European market enjoy tariff preferences, yet good governance in the country is frequently challenged by international NGOs through the lack of democratic values and freedoms, through the use of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances and through human rights, labour rights and environmental rights violations.

State sponsored terrorism, support for the Taliban, working conditions that are sometimes akin to slavery and failure to comply with environmental requirements mean that Pakistan falls far short of the requirements linked to its GSP+ status.

On 20 November 2019, the EU Ambassador to Pakistan said: ‘Three million people live in modern slavery (bonded labour), more than 2 million children under the age of 14 are still engaged in work and the unionisation rate remains very low – under 5%. Unionised workers also continue to be exposed to threats of violence and kidnapping’.

French MEP, Thierry Mariani of the Identity and Democracy Group (ID) posed a question to the Vice-President of the Commission / High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy earlier this year highlighting that “the principle, as regards human rights, is that they should never be conditional upon economic and/or geopolitical objectives” and asked ‘what is going to be done about Pakistan, which still has GSP+ status?”

In March 2020, Commissioner for Trade, Phil Hogan, on behalf of the European Commission answered MEP Mariani’s question with the Commission’s standard answers in respect of Pakistan’s human rights violations. Commissioner Hogan referenced “the Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (GSP +)” that “removes duties on around two – thirds of tariff lines for vulnerable low and lower-middle income countries that implement 27 international conventions related to human rights, labour rights, protection of the environment and good governance”. He cited that the “2018-2019 Report on the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) was submitted to the European Parliament and the Council on 10 February 2020” and “the Staff Working Document on Pakistan” elaborating on the country’s effective implementation of the 27 international conventions.

Commission Hogan provided no evidence, but declared that “the report highlights that Pakistan is making some progress in certain areas, for instance on the protection of women’s and children’s rights; the elimination of honour killings; the protection of transgender persons; cooperation with the United Nations, and good governance”.

The Commissioner also stressed, as documented by numerous international NGOs, that “the report points to areas of concern, for instance, related to the death penalty, enforced disappearances, space for civil society, and labour rights. With regard to labour rights, the report identifies weaknesses regarding the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining and their applicability in Export Processing Zones and Special Economic Zones”. Additionally Commissioner Hogan added that “Pakistan has increased its efforts to implement the environmental conventions”, “however, a Hazardous Waste Management Policy and the rules for trade control of wild fauna and flora need to be strengthened”.

Finally, Commissioner Hogan reported that “the Commission and the European External Action Service will continue discussing these and other issues with Pakistan as part of the continuous monitoring of the country’s commitments under the GSP+”.

The Commissioner failed to answer MEP’s question, which is becoming a repeated occurrence  when MEPs have asked for clarity on trade relations and human rights.

In the case of Pakistan, this demonstrates that the EU Commission is not considering the documented evidence and warnings issued by international institutions. Pakistan’s own Human Rights Council (HRCP) has detailed the government’s human rights record, with serious and horrendous abuses across the country. Despite attempts to reform and to professionalize the police, law enforcement authorities have committed numerous extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Civic space and freedom of expression is replaced with intolerance, direct and open discrimination, and violence against religious minorities and minority ethnic communities.  According to the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Pakistan fell to 142nd place of 180 countries as press freedoms deteriorate. Discrimination and violence against women and girls remain prevalent. Pakistan is ranked 151st place of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum 2020 Gender Gap Index. As noted by the EU Ambassador in Islamabad labour rights remain an issue with The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimating that over three million people were living in modern slavery in Pakistan with bonded and child labour remaining a growing concern.

Substantial evidence of violations of the GSP+ criteria exist fro many recipient countries and MEP Thierry Mariani’s reasoning that “the principle, as regards human rights, is that they should never be conditional upon economic and/or geopolitical objectives” appears to remain an unimplemented principle for Europe’s trade commission.

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