Apr 29, 2021

European Parliament calls for immediate reassessment of EU-Pakistan trade regime

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) welcomes the European Parliament’s 29 April 2021 resolution on the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The resolution is significant not only for its forceful condemnation of the terrible state of religious freedom in Pakistan, but also for its recognition that the European Union (EU) the EU’s trading relationship with Pakistan is failing to uphold human rights, and its demand that the European Commission immediately reconsider it.

On 29 April 2021, the European Parliament passed a resolution decrying the deterioration of what was already a terrible record of religious persecution in Pakistan. The resolution was overwhelmingly passed, 662 to 3, with 26 not voting.

Significantly, the resolution also called for the “Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of current events and whether there is sufficient reason to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of this status and the benefits that come with it, and to report to the European Parliament on this matter as soon as possible.” This provision was voted on separately and received even more votes in favor, passing with 678 votes in favour, 8 against, and 10 not voting.

This is an unprecedented and crucial action by the European Parliament.

Pakistan’s failure to uphold religious and minority rights

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws provided the impetus for the referendum. These laws have led to Muslims, Hindus, Christians and others to face stiff prison sentences, including the death penalty, for statements related to Islam. They have also led to people accused of violations of these laws to be killed in mob violence.

But the problem’s for Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities go much deeper than just these laws, as the European Parliament recognized. Religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs, as well as Sufi, Ahmadiyya, and Shia Muslims, are regularly discriminated against by society at large and are targets of extremists. The practice of targeting religious minorities goes hand-in-hand with targeting ethnic groups, particularly those, such as the Sindhi who have large populations of Sikhs and Hindus and who also reside in economic important regions. The Sindh and Baluch, for example, are regularly subjected to major human rights violations caused by economic development programmes tied to Pakistan’s Belt and Road Initiative Agreement with China, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

A March 2020 UNPO study and June 2020 submission to the UN General Assembly highlight, the UNPO’s membership includes some of the most vulnerable religious minorities and that this applies to Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and others, alike. Yet, consistently Pakistan tops lists of the very worst offenders by international religious freedom experts, a finding that is confirmed by the UNPO’s experience. In 2018, for instance, the US government placed Pakistan on a list of the very worst offenders of religious freedom, as a Country of Particular Concern. As of 2020, just 12 other states are on this list: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam.

The EU’s complicity in these violations

In January 2014, the EU granted Pakistan status under its flagship trading scheme, the General Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+). The GSP+ provides enhanced and preferential free trade between the EU and a small list of countries that are meant to be among those developing countries with the best human rights records. Specifically, to be part of the GSP+ scheme, country partners are required to adhere to 27 international human rights treaties and show positive progress in their implementation. This is because, the GSP+ scheme was designed as critical human rights instrument of the EU, a tool to leverage advancement of the EU’s human rights agenda.

In practice, as it relates to Pakistan, the GSP+ regime has had an opposite effect. As a UNPO policy paper published in February 2020 outlines, since signing onto the GSP+ programme Pakistan has reinstituted the death penalty and signed into agreements with the Communist Party of China that have increased repression of ethnic minorities and freedom of speech (particularly online) and endangered the delicate peace in Kashmir. All the while, the government of Pakistan has done little to address an ever-worsening situation for religious minorities in the country.

In order to maintain Pakistan’s status in the GSP+ programme the European Commission and its foreign affairs arm, the European External Action Service, is required to assess positive human rights progress. That Pakistan’s record on some of the human rights that the EU claims to care most about – the death penalty, equality and non-discrimination – has only worsened significantly since the signing of the GSP+ agreement is hard to dispute. Yet throughout this time, Pakistan’s GSP+ status has been upheld and, in so doing, Pakistan has been given relatively positive encouragement by the EU.

A challenge to EU rule of law

The European Commission and EU member states both have strong geopolitical reasons to do this. Pakistan has long been a key strategic partner in efforts to tackle terrorism. And the EU is engaged in a battle of influence with China, thanks to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Moreover, as a UNPO report issued in April 2020 highlights, the EU member states are also in competition amongst each other for the benefits of EU-China trade. Together, these factors limit will at the highest levels in the EU to take concrete action against human rights violations in China and Pakistan.

Nonetheless, geopolitical concerns, however valid they may be, have no place in the GSP+ process or, indeed, in a European Union governed by the rule of law. The regulations governing the GSP+ process do not allow for such geopolitical concerns to trump clever evidence of a decline in human rights compliance. By continuing to certify Pakistan as eligible for the GSP+ the European Commission and European External Action Service are potentially doing so in clear violation of the EU’s own rules. This is particularly troubling at a time when the European Commission is working to address a decline of rule of law across the EU, taking to task certain member states directly.

As a result, the UNPO has long been working for significant reform of the GSP+ process, both towards Pakistan, and as a whole.

Overwhelming concern of the European Parliament

The European Parliament’s resolution potentially marks a major turning point. Of the seven major political groups in the European Parliament, all tabled resolutions on religious freedom in Pakistan, with six specifically containing provisions on the GSP+. Five of those six demanded a reassessment of Pakistan’s eligibility, while one also requested that the European Ombudsman initiate an investigation into the European Commissions compliance with EU rules.

Ultimately, a joint motion for a resolution was agreed upon, demanding a reassessment of the EU’s GSP+ relationship with Pakistan and a Commission report to the European Parliament. Six of the seven major political groups joined that motion, but one did not. The seventh, which has originally tabled a resolution calling for a reassessment of the GSP+, instead requested raised a second motion, styled as an amendment, calling for a separate vote on the GSP+ provision and then a vote on the resolution as a whole.

The vote on the GSP+ provision ultimately passed with 678 votes in favour, 8 against, and 10 not voting. The vote on the resolution as a whole, including the critical GSP+ provision, passed 662 to 3, with 26 not voting.

UNPO’s Reaction

The UNPO General Secretary, Ralph Bunche, issued the following statement on behalf of the UNPO:

"The process through which the European Parliament promulgated this resolution leaves little room for the European Commission.

"By voting separately on the GSP+ provision, the European Parliament has sent a clear message. It is absolutely concerned about the human rights situation in Pakistan and is demanding change from the government of Pakistan. But it also clearly concerned with how the European Commission and European External Action Service are implementing the GSP+ and their ability to achieve positive human rights change through trade incentives.

“The demand for a reassessment of the GSP+ relationship with Pakistan and a report to the European Parliament on that reassessment cannot be ignored. It is the UNPO’s position that temporarily withdrawal of Pakistan’s GSP+ status is more than warranted in light of the significant problems regarding the death penalty, civil society and media freedom, religious freedom and minority rights that we have witnessed since the GSP+ relationship was established.”


Photo:  Rosary and a man, by danishkhan