Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The EU has been urged to review its trade policy towards Pakistan due to an alleged rise in human rights abuses in the country.
The demand was made at a conference in Brussels on 8 May organized by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF).
Moderator Willy Fautre, director of HRWF, a respected Brussels-based rights group, opened the event and outlined a range of concerns, including alleged abuses against women and young girls in the country.
He described it as “an appalling situation” which demanded “urgent” action by the EU and the broader international community.
Women, he asserted, were “still treated as second class citizens” in the country, especially when it came to job opportunities and education.
In Pakistan, the literacy rate for women is just 45 percent compared with 69 percent for men.
There was a “vicious circle” of gender-based violence, he told the event.
Another speaker, Jose Luis Bazan, an expert on asylum, raised concerns in particular about the country’s blasphemy laws. He explained why the blasphemy laws were an acute problem for religious minorities in Pakistan and for the international human rights community.
He also said there had been a “worrying trend” in violence against religious groups.
The Pakistan National Assembly has “further tightened” its strict blasphemy laws by extending the punishment for those found instigating religious sentiment.
A unanimous bill passed by the Pakistani assembly will increase more severe punishments and fines for those convicted under it.
This has escalated concern among human rights activists and observers.
Bazan also joined other speakers, including Fautre, to call for a review of EU-Pakistan trade relations. This has been largely backed by MEPs.
In April 2021, the European Parliament called on the European Commission and the European External Action Service to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of continued human rights abuses in the country, drawing particular attention to its highly controversial ‘Blasphemy Laws.’
The GSP+ (Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus) provides wide-ranging tariff preferences for imports to the EU from vulnerable developing countries to support poverty eradication, sustainable development, and their participation in the global economy as well as reinforce good governance.
Eligible countries like Pakistan can export goods to the EU market at zero duties for 66 percent of tariff lines. This preferential status is conditional on GSP+ countries demonstrating tangible progress on the implementation of 27 international conventions on human and labour rights, environmental protection, climate change, and good governance, the conference heard.
GSP+ has been beneficial for Pakistani business increasing their exports to the EU market by 65% since the country joined GSP+ in 2014.
The European Single Market, with over 440 million consumers, is Pakistan’s most important destination. Pakistan exports worth about €5.4 billion in items such as garments, bedlinen, terry towels, hosiery, leather, sports, and surgical goods.
The EU regularly sends monitoring missions to assess the situation on the ground.
Another conference participant, Manel Mselmi, who advises MEPs on international affairs, spoke passionately about women’s rights and an alleged rise in cases of forced marriages, both of which she said gave cause for concern.
It was claimed that girls as young as 12 had been “abducted”, forced to convert to Islam, and “married off.”
Meanwhile, on 9 May, Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan was arrested outside the High Court in the capital, Islamabad. Khan was appearing in court on charges of corruption, which he says are politically motivated.
Footage showed dozens of paramilitary forces in armoured vehicles detaining Khan after he entered the court compound, before driving him away. He was ousted as PM in April last year and has been campaigning for early elections since then.
General elections are due to be held in the country later this year.