Pakistan: EU’s GSP + Dilemma

Pakistan’s hope for revival of GSP+ benefits post expiry of current scheme is fading away as dead line of December 31 is fast approaching. This is so mainly because, even after a full decade of opportunities while availing the benefits, nothing has changed on ground in Pakistan in terms of human, labour and women rights, blasphemy, abduction of children and women, besides forced disappearance of journalists. The ongoing political turmoil to deny basic democratic rights for its citizens is the biggest concern for the EU.

The EU is the staunch promoter of human values and rights and uses GSP+ scheme for promoting them in beneficial countries. The ultimate objective of the scheme is to seek international standards to protect labour & human rights and help alleviate poverty by creating jobs and strengthening systems. The scheme benefited Pakistan with almost 66% of its products entering tariff free to the EU. Under the GSP+ scheme, Pak exports have increased by 165% to 2022 over a period of decade.

The GSP+ status is conditional – it requires compliance with all the existing 27 international conventions related to labour and human rights, governance and environment. Pakistan continues to face issues related to compliance of these conventions. To make the criteria for GSP+ more stringent, the EU has now introduced a framework for beneficiary countries to adopt, requiring the presentation of their implementation plans.

Furthermore, the EU has increased the burden of compliance obligations by adding six more international conventions. The additional conventions require GSP+ beneficiary countries to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, prevent children’s involvement in armed conflict, strengthen labour protection through improved inspection and control transnational organized crimes. These additional requirements are putting pressure on Pakistan.

Though, Pakistan has already ratified many of the treaties and protocols, ensuring compliance with these treaties will be a challenging task. The EU has repeatedly shown serious concerns on, inter alia, shrinking civic spaces, death penalty, freedom of religion and belief, freedom of opinion and expression and issues of discrimination against women and minorities.

Since 2012, concerns about Pakistan’s compliance with the core international conventions have been raised by EU member states and civil society time and again. The European Commission’s Staff Working Document about Pakistan’s compliance with the GSP evaluation says, “while constitutional and legal guarantees for the rights of Pakistani citizens are relatively comprehensive, and although the last two years have seen the adoption of a number of new laws, ..… implementation remains an issue of concern.” Pakistan is failing in the “effective implementation” aspect of the GSP+ regulations.

The EU has also pointed out continued violations of labour rights in Pakistan, including the inadequacy of the labour inspection system, occupational safety and health, ineffectiveness of labour courts, denial of workers’ rights to strike, trade unionization and collective bargaining, continued harassment and intimidation of the trade union workers and absence of tripartite mechanisms.

During the last two years, EU and its various bodies have been pressing for freedom of religion or belief, importance of civil society organizations, freedom of expression and media. In April 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution against Pakistan calling for a review of the country’s GSP+ status over the alarming increase in the use of blasphemy accusations in the country and increased attacks on journalists and other civil society actors. Moreover, members of the European Parliament such as Barbara Matera have emphasized the issue of rampant honour killings and domestic violence against women in the context of the GSP+ extension.

The EU Parliament also called on the European Commission (EC) and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status and whether there were sufficient reasons to initiate the procedure for the temporary withdrawal of GSP+ status.

A delegation of sub-committee on Human Rights of European Parliament (EP) also visited Pakistan in September 2022 to discuss human rights. It highlighted the need to prevent the misuse of blasphemy laws by applying safeguards against false accusations.

According to EU’s 2018 GSP+ report, a lack of political will was one of the key reasons behind Pakistan’s inability towards ensuring compliance with GSP+ obligations.

Critics argue that ‘maintaining GSP+ in Pakistan, a state accused of supporting terrorism, with the world’s highest number of prisoners on death row, with rampant killings of journalists, and with an utter lack of rule of law due to abusive military courts, is a serious mistake that threatens the EU’ credibility with other third countries abiding by the rules of trade and respecting human rights’.

It is a point of concern for Pakistan given that the EU, during a previous couple of years, has intensified dialogues as well as launched procedures for the temporary withdrawal of GSP+ status of a number of countries due to their poor performance in compliance with labour and human rights treaties.

According to a Former President of the European Economic and Social Committee, its duty is to uphold EU values, democracy and freedom through EU instruments. ‘Trade policy is not an annex to, nor independent of the Treaty. Trade instruments must comply with the terms of the European Treaty. There is no EU without values’.

Pakistan’s reaping of the benefits of GSP+ without adequate compliances also lessens incentives for countries like Bangladesh that have performed well in several of these areas including labour standards. Bangladesh has earned the admiration of EU in improving labour standards and women rights. The EU risks jeopardizing its own principles and foundation, if GSP+ benefits extended beyond 2023 to Pakistan.