The ongoing review of the GSP Plus scheme for Pakistan reveals European Union (EU)’s firm focus on increasing the number of conventions under the scheme. EU periodically assesses Pakistan’s progress on these parameters through biennial reviews of the scheme. Till now, three reviews have been held in 2016, 2018 and 2020and the country is presently undergoing the fourth exercise which will determine the continuation of GSP Plus beyond 2023.
To continue further with GSP Plus, Pakistan is required to ensure implementation of 27 UN conventions relating to human rights, labor rights and climate change. Weary of Islamabad’s claims of compliances through namesake domestic legislations, EU is highlighting the need to seriously tackle the human right issues. The EU Ambassador to Pakistan Dr Riina Kionka recently stated that some more conventions relating to human and labor rights would be added to the existing list during the review next year. The additional conventions will reportedly pertain to rights of persons with disabilities, involvement of children in armed conflict, labor inspection, trans-national organized crimes, etc.
Pakistan has been enjoying the facility provided by EU since 2014 and immensely gains from zero import duty on 66% of the tariff lines. Owing to the scheme, Pak exports to EU increased substantially from €3.56 billion in 2013 to €6.64 billion in 2021. The GSP Plus has mostly boosted the textile, leather, sports and surgical goods sectors of Pakistani manufacturing. As part of ongoing review, Directorate General Trade of European commission (EC) has asked for information on various actions taken by Pakistan for implementing desired conventions. It has also shared a list of priority actions on which Pakistan needs to submit a report by the end of October 2022.
Despite EU’s constant encouragement, Pakistan has so far not been able to show any meaningful progress in human rights. Marginalized sections of Pakistani population continue to suffer from abysmal state of labor rights, women rights, education and health facilities. The lack of progress indicates presence of vested interest groups in the country who continue to garner benefits from the scheme. This includes powerful exporter lobby of the country which enjoys significant tariffs benefits while depriving the weaker sections of their basic rights. The stagnant economic condition of workers also exposes the silent support extended to this lobby by a complicit political and diplomatic class. They ensure the continuation of the benefits by reassuring the EU about Pakistan’s intent of improving the pitiable condition of these vulnerable groups.
Apart from workers’ condition, the blatant misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and state’s ineffectiveness in tackling it is a major concern for the EU. Numerous cases of blasphemy have been pending in Pakistani courts leading to many falsely accused persons from minority groups languishing in prisons. A delegation of sub-committee on Human Rights of European Parliament (EP) visited Pakistan in September 2022 to discuss human rights in the country. After the visit, EP highlighted the need to prevent the misuse of blasphemy laws, by applying safeguards against false accusations.
EU also raked up the issue of civil and political rights of minorities and at-risk groups during the 12th EU–Pakistan Joint Commission which took place on October 5, 2022 in Islamabad. It pressed for freedom of religion or belief while emphasizing the importance of civil society organizations, freedom of expression and media. Earlier in April 2022, the EP had passed a resolution calling for action by EC and the European External Action Service (EEAS) on the issue of non-compliance by Pakistan. Noting Pakistan’s failure to address human rights abuses and the controversial blasphemy laws, the EP even demanded benefits to be suspended in case of continued violations.
To avoid further adverse notice by the EU on the deplorable state of human rights in the country, Pakistan wants to be seen as working on several legislations. These include enforced disappearance bill, anti-torture bill and domestic violence bill. The first test for the bills in various stages of approval will be their acceptance by the domestic political class. After that, their on-ground efficacy will be put to test. The inclusion of fresh conventions would be an additional test for the frail Pakistani institutions in supporting human rights.
Despite ineffectiveness of existing and proposed legislations, EU expects Pakistan to do more on policy part. Its various delegations visiting Pakistan in the past have emphasized the need to work on some priority actions. This includes reducing the scope of death penalty, policy on NGOs, child labor, misuse of blasphemy laws and climate change issues. How Pakistani institutions are able to cope with the challenge and report some noteworthy performance to the EC by the end of October 2022 is likely to determine the direction of its negotiations on the future of scheme.