Radical Islamists and clerics in Pakistan called for the death penalty and beheading of a 15-year-old Hindu girl, Mehak Kumari when she declared that she had been forced to convert to Islam. Cases of forced conversion have always existed in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, but concern is growing because of the recent increasing number of cases.
Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Brando Benifei of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) raised concerns over religious freedom and forced conversions in Pakistan.
Every year around 1000 women and girls are victims of kidnapping, rape and forced conversion. In February this year, the forced abduction, conversion and marriage of Huma Younus, a 14-year-old Christian girl, was deemed valid under Sharia law by a Pakistani court because Huma had already had her first menstrual cycle.
In 2014, the European Union granted Pakistan access to its Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+). The European Commission has answered multiple questions from the European Parliament regarding human rights abuses in the country and always highlights that, as a beneficiary country, Pakistan is subject to strict monitoring of its commitments under the twenty-seven applicable international conventions.
On 02 June 2020, Italian MEP Brando Benifei stated in a written parliamentary question to the European Commission that “in the last Commission GSP+ assessment of Pakistan the high number of kidnappings and forced conversions of mainly underage girls was highlighted” and that “the prerequisite for acceptance and retention of GSP+ is established on the basis of criteria and compliance with international conventions.” He added “Pakistan continues to be a country of concern in terms of compliance”.
MEP Benifei thus asked the Commission to “justify how widespread kidnappings, rapes and forced conversions are inline within the compliance criteria?” and “will the Commission consider suspending Pakistan’s GSP+ preferences until religious freedoms and women’s rights are upheld?”
On behalf of the European Commission, the Commissioner for Trade, Phil Hogan responded to MEP Benifei on 12 August 2020 by referencing the 10 February 2020 published 2018-2019 Report on the Generalised Scheme of Preferences to the European Parliament and the Council that includes an assessment of Pakistan’s implementation of 27 conventions in the areas of human rights, labour rights, environment, and good governance under the Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (GSP+).
Mr Hogan reported that “Pakistan has made steps towards improving the situation of women and girls, e.g. on the elimination of honour killings, the protection of transgender persons, and the protection of women’s and children’s rights”.
However, Commissioner Hogan acknowledged that “while legislation against forced marriages has been put in place, there are still reports of forced conversions of Hindu women to Islam, mostly among lower caste minor girls” and that “at provincial level, the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013 has not been enforced effectively and the state’s response to forced marriages has been mixed” and that “the GSP+ monitoring addresses the Christian Marriage and Divorce Act, the Hindu Marriage Act and the various Child Marriage Restraint Acts, given that most cases of forced conversion concern underage girls”.
The Commissioner added that the European Commission concerns “are included in the list of salient issues the Commission sent to Pakistan in June 2020”. According to Mr Hogan, this list includes, “among others, effective action to tackle the impunity for the perpetrators of crimes, coordination and oversight of the formulation and implementation of gender equality policies and programmes, the prioritisation of women’s rights in development strategies, and addressing the wage gap” and also “stressing the need to take measures to end the forced conversion and forced marriage of Christian and Hindu women”.
He also reported that a “response from the Pakistan government is expected by September 2020” and that “the issue will also be covered by a joint Commission/EEAS monitoring mission to Pakistan”.
The Commissioner told MEP Benifei that “women’s rights, as well as religious minority rights, were discussed during the 10th EU-Pakistan Sub-Group on Democracy, Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights on 14 November 2019” and that “a temporary withdrawal of GSP preferences is used in exceptional cases and as a last resort only”.
At the same time, Commissioner Hogan gave a very similar response to MEPs Maria Arena and Sylwia Spurek, also from the S&D Group, who had raised concerns regarding women’s rights in Pakistan and the violation of GSP+ criteria in that respect. In both cases the Commissioner failed to address the concerns raised by the MEPs and appears to fail to understand the scope of the continued abuse of children, especially girls, received in relation to religious minority oppression in Pakistan which is a violation of the International Convention on Political and Civil Rights (ICCPR ) and of the Rights of the Child (CRC).
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