Pakistan GSP+ Benefits with the EU is Under Major Threat

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The EU granted the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) to Pakistan in 2014 allowing duty-free access for most of its goods in the bloc. Pak exporters immensely benefited with about two-thirds tariff lines cut while entering the EU market. However, in return for foregoing import duty, the EU anticipated that Islamabad will enact laws and policies to improve its compliance to the globally accepted standards of corporate and social behavior. Mostly these include improving human rights situation, labour standards, women’s working conditions as well as environment protection, in all comprising 27 UN conventions.

Pakistan’s exports to EU under the GSP+ scheme increased substantially to EUR 6.64 billion in 2021 from EUR 3.56 billion in 2013, mostly consisting textile, leather, sports and surgical goods sectors. In addition to achieving higher exports, GSP+ mandate helped Pak business community to have an exposure to the UN standards of manufacturing and living including human, labour, women rights and other standards. However, notwithstanding export benefits, Pak government’s response to improve its performance across socio-political metrics as per GSP+ stipulation has been slow and inadequate so far.

Though Pakistan benefited from the EU’s GSP+, the quality of life of workers, safety and dignity of workspace, most especially for the ever increasing women participants has not improved. The pathetic situation continues despite several warnings by the international community. Violation of these rights in Pakistan on daily basis is a story which has yet to be told and appreciated by the West. Islamabad had failed to implement its own legislations. Though it enacted various legislations to convince the EU in adhering UN conventions, most of them are just eye wash to get the benefit from the scheme which were cornered by the rich and never reached the poor stakeholders. Besides, violation in human, women and labour rights, forced abduction, freedom of media persons, NGOs and blasphemy are still matters of daily routine in Pakistan. The poor workers are compelled to live with their fate. They neither get minimum wages nor dignity. GSP+ is not a development assistance tool. It involves promotion of economic financial and trade development, with an aim to successively involve the trading partner to promote human values in the system. Therefore, human rights play vital roles in granting GSP+ benefits. The EU members are very sensitive to these human rights violations.

Consumers in the EU do not just want to buy a product, the core product, physical product itself, alone. They are more conscious about proper compliances while manufacturing including codes covering procurement of its components and production processes, environment, etc. Pakistan could not perform up to the EU’s GSP+ standards in the past. Now, the list of UN Conventions is expected to get longer under the new GSP+ scheme effective 2024 with inclusion of additional conventions covering rights of persons with disabilities, involvement of children in armed conflict, labour inspection and trans-national organized crimes. Some of the clauses pertain to complaining against state on international human rights fora including UNHRC. Observers suspect whether Pakistan would be able to comply with the new set of provisions. 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. They had frequently pointed out 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, etc.

At least, Islamabad’s past records were also not convincing. In its resolutions on Pakistan on blasphemy laws in 2014 & 2021, the European Parliament (EP) underlined that GSP+ status comes with strings attached, and called upon the Commission to strictly monitor compliance.
A delegation of sub-committee on Human Rights of EP which visited Pakistan in September 2022 to discuss human rights, highlighted the need to prevent misuse of blasphemy laws by applying safeguards against false accusations. The EU again raked up the issue of civil and political rights of minorities and at-risk group during the 12th EU-Pakistan Joint Commission meeting. Pakistan is presently undergoing the fourth biennial review of GSP+ to determine the continuation of the benefits from 2024. Rather than improving the situation in Pakistan has worsened further. Human right violations reported by Pakistani political parties also. A recently released Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) dossier seeks to compile all the alleged human rights violations and accused the government of illegal arrests, detention, custodial torture and victimizing political workers, suppressing media reporting, attacking freedom of expression and violating the dignity and privacy of political opponents.

Dr. Shireen Mazari, a former human rights minister, told that ‘enforced disappearances and violation of human rights have become common in Pakistan’. She also stressed that the EU might not extend its GSP+ preferential tariff scheme for Pakistan when negotiations begin ‘because of the way the government had been violating human rights’. Besides, the EU is facing mounting pressure, especially on economic front due to the ongoing crisis post Covid. The EU members are looking for overcoming and plugging the laxity in compliances to stop the benefits extended under the GSP+ to the undeserving. The recent case being German Embassy’s letter to Pak authorities pointing out difficulties faced by German manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi in exporting electric cars to Pakistan. It called the Pak restrictions on import as detrimental to Pakistan-Germany bilateral trade warning that Islamabad may lose the GSP+ status. Germany is treating the Islamabad’s restrictions on opening LCs as a violation for revoking the GSP+ status given by the EU.

Pakistan has defeated the purpose of GSP+ not only with regard to human and labour rights, but also in bringing equity in society at the cost of EU citizens and the government. The ruling elite in Pakistan had used the facility for their personal gains as proved by a European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) report. Islamabad readmission for the GSP+ benefits post 2023 is being seen as a failed incentive to a country which neither has maintained EU’s values nor reciprocated in economic cooperation proportionately. The EU is looser both in terms of revenue as well as its values and standards.

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