Sunday December 05, 2021

Strings attached

July 15, 2021

Few men have occupied Lahore Mall Road's gubernatorial estate over successive terms of two different governments. Fewer still occupied that office after leaving behind a sound political legacy, and indeed dynasty, in a legislative assembly thousands of miles away.

The erstwhile member of parliament for Glasgow Govan and current Governor Punjab Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar is one such man. His unassuming demeanour does not betray even an ounce of the political mileage he has garnered as a Scottish and later Pakistani legislator.

But what makes him such an invaluable asset for Pakistan’s political class? In January 2014, he proved his mettle by being a key interlocutor between Pakistan and the European Union (EU). His efforts bore considerable fruit when Pakistan was bestowed with the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) status allowing our economy to benefit from the complete exemption of 66 percent of monies owed along EU tariff lines when conducting trade with member states, alongside other benefits.

Predictably, the status certification was a godsend for Pakistan’s fledgling export market. The EU’s imports from Pakistan shot up by 17 percent in the two years that followed, going up to $8.08 billion by 2016. Following the decision, a sum total of almost 28 percent of all Pakistani exports entered EU markets at preferential rates. Eighty-six percent of these were goods from Pakistan’s flourishing textile and leather industries and provided a much-needed spur to the sector’s already consistent upswing . The EU is now Pakistan’s second largest trading partner, accounting for almost 14.3 percent of the country’s total global trade.

The GSP+ status, however, came with strings attached. To continue to benefit from unfettered market access, Pakistan had to ratify and demonstrate sustained progress towards the implementation of 27 key international agreements pertaining to human/labour rights, good governance and environmental protections etc. The EU member states, in tandem with the European Commission and civil society organisations, have closely monitored whether Pakistan is making good on its obligations. Their benevolence over three cycles of the biennial assessment has allowed as many extensions to our status as a prime trading partner. This benevolence is now under severe threat.

Given the fast-deteriorating and abysmal human rights record of the Pakistani state, the EC has pointed to a potential suspension of the GSP+ as perhaps the last resort to ensure that Pakistan complies with the human rights conventions laid out under the scheme. An April 2021 resolution passed in the EP called for not only a stricter examination of Pakistan’s progress but also asserted that it had already violated its compulsions.

Presented by the pro-European group ‘Renew Europe’ (RE), the resolution cited the increase in discriminatory laws targeting the rights of minorities and the disregard for fundamental human rights as violations of Pakistan’s obligations under the GSP+. The bill passed with an overwhelming majority of 681 to 6 and pressed Pakistan to ensure greater “freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of thought”. It also decried the 2014 reversal of the moratorium on capital punishment in Pakistan, pushing for its immediate re-instatment.

The bill ended with a call for the European Ombudsman to conduct a thorough investigation into Pakistan’s recent track record. A call that may well have sent shockwaves through multiple administrative blocks at the Pakistan Secretariat in Islamabad.

With a trade deficit that has swollen to $30.8 billion in FY21, Pakistan can ill afford to lose its status and be excluded from preferential market access. Stringent conditions under the IMF programme, the ongoing sixth review of the Fund, the FATF’s restrictions and an imminent tranche of the $6 billion bailout mean that Islamabad would be well-served to ensure compliance to well-established and clearly laid out human rights protocols and obligations under the GSP+ programme. The government must deliver on its promises to ensure the economic security and wellbeing of its citizens.

A return to the effective ban on the death penalty will be the optimum starting point for the state to exhibit its willingness to cooperate with key trade partners. The years 2009 to 2013 saw just one Pakistani prisoner being sent to the gallows. In the years since, Pakistan has hanged 516 inmates with 3,831 more on death row. Reinforcing the moratorium would not only have a desirable impact on our global trade relations but would also ensure a common-sense return to equity and fairness in our criminal justice system.

The aforementioned resolution lists the criminal cases against Shafqat Emanuel and Shagufta Kausar as causes for concern. With protection of minority groups enshrined in our constitution, it is binding on all arms of the state to safeguard their inalienable rights as citizens of our Islamic Republic. With sizable investments and favourable policies being made in export-ready sectors such as IT, agriculture and real estate infrastructure, losing the GSP+ status would be an avoidable and reckless hitch.

The writer works as an advocacy officer for Justice Project Pakistan. He tweets @ZarnaabJanjua