The rights approach

With GSP-plus review due next month, human rights and trade maximisation take centre-stage

The EU Parliament.

The European Union (EU) granted Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP Plus) status to Pakistan in 2013, giving it preferential trade access to the European markets. This status was awarded to the country for 10 years but made subject to a periodic review after every two years.

The grant of this status was linked to compliance with 27 international conventions on human rights, labour standards, environment, governance etc. The country therefore has to show improvement on these counts to retain it. Otherwise, it may lose this status just like Sri Lanka which was stripped of it in 2010 because of its unsatisfactory performance on rights issues.

The situation at the moment is that the third periodic review is due in January 2020 and there are both hopes and fears regarding the outcome. The country survived the earlier two reviews and continued to reap its benefits in the form of increased exports. While there are those who question Pakistan’s status citing certain human rights violations, there are others who claim that the country has made major strides towards improving the rights situation and governance and ensuring core labour standards. They do acknowledge that there are problems with the implementation of pro-people laws passed over the last few years but term this legislation a first step in the right direction.

Punjab Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar has visited the EU region and announced that he has garnered support of over two dozen members of the European Parliament (EP) regarding the continuation of GSP-Plus Status for Pakistan. He had also claimed credit for winning this status for the country in 2013.

This leads to some questions. For example, why is it that the country has to resort to lobbying rather than showing improvement in rights and governance issues? Is the reporting mechanism adopted by the government comprehensive and representative? Has Pakistan benefitted according to the potential of this status or not? And what practical measures shall it adopt to reduce dependence on political lobbying to request for continuation of this status and derive maximum benefits out of it.

The situation at the moment is that the third periodic review is due in January 2020 and there are both hopes and fears regarding the outcome. The country survived the earlier two reviews and continued to reap its benefits in the form of increased exports.

Before looking for the answers, let us explore what the GSP-Plus status offers to the country. The scheme that began in January 2014 allows Pakistan a generous tariff regime, mostly zero duties, on export of two-thirds of all product categories to the European markets. The country falls in the category of vulnerable in terms of trade which as per EU definition is a low and lower-middle income country that lacks diversification and sufficient integration in the international trading system.

Javed Malik, Country Representative of Democracy Reporting International (DRI) — a civil society organisation — points out that after acquiring the status in 2014, Pakistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) achieved the decade’s highest growth of 5.7 per cent in financial year 2017-18. “The country has benefitted but there is still a lot of untapped potential in terms of trade that needs to be explored,” he adds.

Citing a report released by his organisation, Malik says that Pakistan’s exports are concentrated in five primary sectors which represent more than 95 per cent of the total volume. The textile sector alone, he says, has increased its share from 73 percent to 79 percent in 2018. However, it makes up only 5 percent of the EU’s total textiles imports from all over the globe. On the other hand, he says, exports of leather, primary metals, plastic and rubber, and other high value-added products have declined since Pakistan gained the status. Another issue of concern, he points out, is that more than 70 per cent of the goods exported from Pakistan to the EU region are limited to only five European countries. Diversifying products and exploring more markets within the EU region can push the export volume up considerably, he adds.

Compliance is a big challenge for Pakistan to convince the global powers, especially the EU, that it has made improvements in the domains of human rights and labour rights and has introduced efficient governance models.

A report titled GSP-Plus and Implementation of Human Rights Instruments in Pakistan released by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) in June 2019 hints at some of the challenges. The report mentions curbs on national and local civil society organisations, international NGOs and the freedom of expression and disappearances of political workers from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh as some factors that have put the country in a defensive position. It says: “The great mismatch between counter-terrorism legislation and human rights standards remains a major failure in the country since the implementation of such legislation leads to covering of human rights violations under a veil of legality.”

However, the same report also points out some positive developments such as the merger of the FATA into the KP and the consequent extension of the constitutional and civil judiciary to the people who were deprived of all rights for 71 years.

Ume Laila Azhar, executive director of Homenet Pakistan, tells TNS that the civil society plays a major role in highlighting the gaps and lacunae in laws, rules and policies to help the government set its priorities. But unfortunately, she says, its intentions are widely misunderstood. She says though shadow reports are not sought officially from the civil society under the GSP-Plus regime, these are being regularly submitted and discussed in the European Parliament.

Azhar suggests that the government must take the civil society on board when reporting on GSP-Plus rather than working in isolation because the ultimate aim of both is to bring improvements in the rights situation in the country. She says a major development is that the government has started reporting on several covenants and convention after winning GSP-Plus which was not the case earlier.

The reporting system regarding GSP-Plus has been put in place. Under this system, Treaty Implementation Cells (TICs) have been formed in all four provinces, as well as in Gilgit Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and at the federal level. The National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) has also been established to implement the human rights agenda.

According to the document provided by Punjab Human Rights Department, the key concerns of EU in the scorecard shared in 2014 included lack of reporting as required by the UN treaties, violence and discrimination against women, violence against children (sexual abuse, corporal punishment, ill-treatment, honour killing etc), child labour and no recent survey on child labour, early and forced marriages, human rights violation on pretext of counter terrorism (extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances etc). In 2015, the second scorecard added some new areas like violations against minority groups, acid throwing, marriage with Holy Quran etc. In the third scorecard shared in May 2016, the major concerns remained the same as of previous versions with additions of death penalty, forced conversion, control of epidemics and diseases including polio, etc.

The government of the Punjab submitted an implementation report and response during August 2016 to the federal government. EU has not shared a scorecard for 2017 yet. However, as per regulations, European Commission will submit a two-year report (2016-17) regarding implementation of international treaties in Pakistan to the European Parliament for review.

“The response of the government of the Punjab mentions key initiatives of the provincial government that include reorganisation of Minority Advisory Council, Punjab (MACP), launch of Minority Development Fund (MDF) for infrastructure development of minority-concentrated regions/areas, departmental inquires and punishments in case of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, investigation under Section 174 of CrPC in case of custodial death, legislation to curb hate speech and its strict implementation, subordinate legislation to control acid throwing incidents and to regulate the trade in chemicals, Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kiln Ordinance, 2016 etc,” says Muhammad Yousaf, a deputy director at the Department of Human Rights, Punjab.


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Pakistan and EU's GSP-Plus review: The rights approach