November 22, 2023
The European Union (EU) has expressed concerns over increasing cases of enforced disappearances and curbs on media in Pakistan in its 4th monitoring report on Pakistan’s performance under Generalised Scheme of Preference, also known as GSP Plus or GSP +.
The report, covering the years 2020 to 2022, urged Pakistan to continue legislative reforms and to implement legislation that lead to tangible improvements for all Pakistanis.
“The 2022 law against torture constitutes a significant step in the implementation of the Convention Against Torture, and the supervisory role given by the law to the National Commission for Human Rights in investigations is a positive achievement,” the report read.
It also lauded judicial verdicts safeguarding the rights of juvenile offenders. The report said that landmark judgements on juvenile and mentally ill defendants and legislative reforms have also limited the scope of application of the death penalty.
“While first steps to reduce the scope of the death penalty have been taken, further efforts are needed to align with international standards, namely by introducing a comprehensive revision of the mercy petition procedure,” it stated.
‘Religious freedom continues to be violated’
The monitoring report said that freedom of religion or belief and rights of persons belonging to minorities continue to be regularly violated, despite some efforts regarding interfaith dialogue.
“In this context, the Government must take determined action and clear positions against the discrimination of minorities, religious sects and vulnerable persons, the misuse of blasphemy laws, and the risk of false accusations, mob violence and even mob lynching,” it added.
‘Clampdown on free speech’
The report particularly raised serious concerns over the situation of media freedom in Pakistan.
“Despite the legislative progress, the media community reports pressure and harassment limiting journalists’ ability to report. Women journalists are particularly targeted,” it stated, adding that several journalists suffered violent attacks and disappeared during the monitoring period.
Pakistan continues to rank low in international comparative rankings on press freedom, placing 150th out of 180. The review also mentioned that the government, on several occasions, banned cable operators and television channels that aired critical content.
This is not only limited to journalists, the report stated, adding that human rights activists and elected representatives also feel their freedom of speech being curbed through various administrative or legal measures.
‘Military trials in wake of May 9 riots’
The report also mentioned May 9, 2023, riots and the subsequent trials of civilians in military courts, saying, “this implies a very wide interpretation of the notion of ‘terrorism’ and gives rise to concerns about compliance with Article 14 ICCPR, guaranteeing the right to a trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal.”
It quoted the UN Human Rights Committee as saying “trial of civilians in military or special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned,” and that “trials of civilians by military or special courts should be exceptional, i.e. limited to cases where the State party can show that resorting to such trials is necessary and justified by objective and serious reasons, and where … regular civilian courts are unable to undertake the trials.”
Enforced disappearances continue
The EU review quoted the Commission on Forced Disappearances that “it had received 1,875 new cases and that it closed 1,814 cases in 2020-2021. However, the Commission has been criticised, including by the Islamabad High Court in June 2022, for not fulfilling its duties and not prosecuting anyone responsible for enforced disappearances.”
Why is this review crucial for Pakistan?
This was the 4th biennial review concluded under the current GSP+ scheme since the country was given GSP+ status in January 2014. This is crucial as it evaluates progress on 27 key international conventions covering human rights, covering labour rights, environmental standards and good governance, by the countries benefiting from the scheme.
This preferential status enables Pakistan to enjoy duty-free or minimum duty on exports to EU markets. From 2014 to 2022, Pakistan’s exports to the EU increased by 108% whereas imports went up by 65%.
The total trade volume increased from EUR 8.3 billion in 2013 to EUR 14.85 billion in 2022.