The year 2104 was no doubt a year of great opportunity for Pakistan because at that time the country was awarded the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus status by the European Union (EU). Under this status, Pakistan got duty-free access to the European markets for its products in a highly competitive market. The leading export-oriented industries, especially the textile industry, celebrated this development and braced for boosting exports to the region and earn precious foreign exchange for Pakistan.
This status was awarded for 10 years but subjected to a review every two years. The decision to continue or suspend this status depends on this review that has to be discussed in the EU Parliament at length. Under this review, the teams appointed by the EU monitor the progress made by the recipient country (Pakistan is this case) on implementing 27 UN conventions pertaining to human rights, labour rights, climate change, narcotics control and corruption.
The first periodic review was done for the years 2014 and 2015 and this status was continued on grounds that Pakistan had shown willingness to ensure compliance with the UN conventions though it could not achieve much during these years. It got this favour also for the reason that two years was considered too little a time to expect extraordinary progress. However, an expectation at that time was the situation would be quite encouraging at the time of second review for the years 2016 and 2017.
The latest is that the second review has been done and will be discussed in the EU Parliament shortly. The continuation or discontinuation of the status for Pakistan depends on this debate about whether the country has achieved much in this regard or not. The draft of the review is available for public at the moment and will be discussed here. But before taking it up, there is a need to weigh how important is this status for Pakistan.
Looking at the trade figures from 2006 to 2016, one finds Pakistan’s exports to EU almost doubled from 3.3 billion euros to 6.2 billion euros per year. Major boost came after the award of GSP Plus status to Pakistan in January 2014, a proof of which is that there has been a 21 per cent increase between 2014 and 2016 in terms of Pakistan’s exports to EU.
Pakistan’s business community believes the EU market is extremely important for the country because it receives around 29 per cent of the country’s total exports to the world, followed by the USA (16 per cent), China (9 per cent) and Afghanistan (8 per cent). The country cannot afford to lose this status especially in a scenario where overall exports are falling and foreign remittances decreasing due to worsening conditions in the labour markets of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Coming to the review report, some of the important observations made by the EU team follow. It points out the government of Pakistan has established a system of Treaty Implementation Cells (TICs) at federal and provincial levels, tasked with coordinating the implementation of treaty obligations between different line ministries and departments and between the federal and provincial levels. The National Commission of Human Right (NCHR) has been established though its functional and budgetary autonomy is yet to be fully materialised. Besides, it says, the federal and provincial Commissions on the Status of Women have also played an important role in promoting human rights in Pakistan. It also praises the government’s intention “to improve data collection by establishing a Human Rights Management Information System, which will be anchored in a National Human Rights Institute.”
On the other hand, it identifies outstanding issues and points out that the right to a fair trial remains a major concern, stemming from weaknesses of the judicial system. “A large backlog of cases resulting in defendants spending years in jail before their case is heard continues to be a problem. The registration process of international NGOs (INGOs) continues to be slow and nontransparent.” The issues of forced marriages, forced conversions, forced disappearances, custodial deaths, death penalty etc have been taken up in the report as well. The concerns about freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, the situation of human rights defenders and civil society activists, and the overall ‘shrinking civil society space’ are also there.
Regarding the eight conventions on labour rights, the review report talks about the formation of a national labour protection framework by the federal and provincial authorities, the ongoing labour force and child labour surveys, improvements in the area of tripartite dialogue, formation of trade unions in the informal sector etc but calls upon the government to address the persistent obstacles for the registration and functioning of trade unions. The issues of child labour and bonded labour have also been discussed along with the efforts to curb these.
Similarly, the review report evaluates Pakistan’s efforts to implement the environmental conventions and the legislative measures taken in this regard and progress on drug control and anti corruption measures. It specially mentions the role of senior judiciary that has been highly critical about the hunting of Houbara Bustard — an endangered migratory bird — in Pakistan.
Ume Laila Azhar, Executive Director Homenet Pakistan, says it is a mix picture and the report seems to have categorically analysed the present situation of Pakistan’s executive and legislature. She finds the review report an eye-opener and urges the government functionaries to do the needful. For example, she says, “The number of labour inspectors has been stagnating countrywide and the whole labour inspection system is in need of reform, which is essential to improve the enforcement of labour rights and working conditions. Without an effective labour inspection system it is impossible to ensure labour rights.”
Zulfiqar Shah, Joint Director Pakistan Institute for Labour Education & Research (PILER), hopes the GSP Plus status will continue as the report seems to be appreciative of the pro-rights legislation done by the government. “Though it highlights human rights violation in Pakistan, it appreciates the measures taken for improvement as well.” However, he says, the review appears to be biased in favour of the government in terms of labour rights in a scenario where only one per cent of the workforce is unionised.
Bushra Khaliq, Executive Director Women in Struggle for Empowerment (WISE), shares it with TNS that the second review is different from the first because this time the third party evaluation has also been done on the behest of EU. Due to this, she says, the findings cannot be termed biased as happens when the civil society of the country gives its input. The government shall seek guidelines from the report and its recommendations for the sake of its citizens as well as the continuation of GSP Plus status.
Khaliq appreciates the fact that the government has recently submitted its reports to the UN regarding compliance with its certain conventions, terming it a positive trend. Earlier, there would be reluctance and delays in this regard.
Lastly, she thinks even the EU Parliament is answerable to the highly vigilant civil society in Europe and cannot ignore it while deciding on the continuation of this preferential status. “So, it is equally important to convince the civil society that we are taking these issues seriously.”