Feb 28, 2020

Trade & Aid Complicity in Repression

The UNPO is exposing how development partnerships, business deals and trade schemes make liberal democracies complicit in repression of unrepresented people. We want policy changes that will ensure an effective response to this repression.

Through research and advocacy, UNPO is working to expose how different development partnerships, business deals and preferential trade schemes make the European Union complicit with states notorious for their appalling human rights records - and what policy changes are necessary to reverse this issue. Trade can be indeed a powerful leverage to improve human rights, but only when the mechanism is transparent, the outcomes are tangible and the assessment of the stakeholders’ performance is not based on double standards.


  • EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP/GSP+)

Pakistan enjoys one of the EU's most favourable trade schemes, the GSP+. The arrangement is conditioned by the effective implementation of 27 international conventions related to human rights, labour rights, protection of the environment and good governance. However, since Pakistan obtained the preferential status, one practice has not stopped: the inhuman treatment of the country's ethnic and religious minorities. 

Pakistan promotes the systematic persecution of journalists and activists, promotes enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture. As far as Pakistan’s religious freedom violations are concerned, Pakistan is one of the worst violators globally.

UNPO noted that the EU approach to the issue contrasts sharply with US foreign policy. Aiming to highlight this discrepancy and encourage the harmonisation of the two policies, the UNPO launched the policy paper Religious Persecution in Pakistan and the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+): Inspirations from US Policy. 

Today, Pakistan finds itself on a list of only 10 countries in the world that have been designated as the worst violators of international religious freedom, while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of belonging to the exclusive list of only 8 countries to which the EU has granted the most favourable trade preferences. 

In light of such inconsistency, the UNPO has urged the European Union to launch a temporary withdrawal procedure of the EU’s GSP+ trade preferences to Pakistan pursuant to Article 19 of the GSP Regulation until the monitoring process is reassessed and actual improvement of human rights - most notably regarding enforced disappearances and religious freedom - become tangible. 


  • The Belt and Road Initiative and the European Union

Although the EU has not adopted a unified approach towards China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), half of EU member states have already signed BRI-related agreements, while many top European companies are also already participating in the initiative.

The UNPO report  A Tale of Three Ports - The Impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on Unrepresented Peoples in Pakistan and China shows how the Chinese model of development and investment under the BRI framework is exacerbating the plight of unrepresented peoples and weakening democratic mechanisms of governance - and how some EU countries might be complicit. 

The UNPO identified three key cases of infrastructure developments of sea and land ports that are triggering this trend:

  1. In Balochistan, where China is currently overseeing the expansion of a deep-water sea port in Gwadar. The project is currently being implemented without addressing the pre-existing ethnic conflict in the region, causing the increased alienation and resentment of the local people. Dissent against China’s project and presence is often met with harsh violence by the local guarantors of Chinese investments: the Pakistani military. As a result, thousands of bullet-ridden bodies of Baloch people have been found dumped, often with marks of torture and mutilation.
  2. In Xinjiang, where China is using high-tech surveillance to arbitrarily detain its Muslim minorities and force them to give up their faith, in what is now the largest arbitrary detention of a single ethnic group since the Second World War. Determined to make Xinjiang the heart of the Belt and Road, China is erasing the identity and cultural heritage of the Turkic community.  
  3. In Duisburg, Germany, which is home to the largest inland port in the world and now considered China’s gateway to Europe. While broad evidence of gross human rights violations in the production and supply chain emerge, some German companies and governmental institutions continue to facilitate Chinese goods, companies and infrastructure at the heart of its territory.

This arrives in the context of growing manipulation of the United Nations by autocratic states, led by China, who are seeking to weaken mechanisms of accountability for human rights violations in their favour. Coupled with a systematic pattern of bullying and blocking at the UN human rights mechanisms, the space for representatives of marginalised peoples has been further reduced. With a weakened UN, the need for the EU and Germany to step up is even more urgent. 

Tieing business to human rights is a powerful framework to improve the lives of marginalised peoples worldwide. If properly conducted, human rights due diligence can transform entire supply chains across continents and strengthen respect for fundamental rights in regions troubled by inequality and violence.

But when the mechanism is inconsistent, it can trigger reverse effects and further expose indigenous peoples and minorities to conditions of extreme violence, resource deprivation and injustice. In this regard, the European Union’s duplicity between words and action is deeply problematic.