As Pakistan’s beneficiary status under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) comes to an end in December 2023, the nation is making extensive efforts to get the status renewed. At the same time, given the abysmal records of Pakistan on the economic and humanitarian fronts, the mood of the international community, including some members of the European Parliament, does not favor the status renewal.
Through the generous tariff treatment extended by the EU to selected countries, the greater goal of GSP+ is to incentivize developing countries to pursue sustainable development and good governance. The beneficiary countries must fulfill 27 international human rights, labour rights, environmental protection, and good governance conventions. Further, six new conventions on children’s rights, environmental safety, labour rights, organised crime, and persons with disabilities were added to the agreement in 2021 for renewal beyond 2023. Through these conventions, the favorable status comes with broader goals of international peace, stability, and human development. The ongoing review is to check if Pakistan fulfilled these greater responsibilities in tandem with the great benefits endowed to it with the status.
Since the inception of the preferred status in 2014, GSP+ become an indispensable element for the otherwise politically and socio-economically unstable nation’s economic growth. In 2020, the EU was Pakistan’s second most important trading partner, destination for 28% of Pakistan’s exports, majorly dominated by textiles and clothing. In 2022, Pakistan exported €9.5 billion of goods to the EU. Because of GSP+, more than 76% of Pakistan’s exports enter the EU markets duty and quota-free, helping Pakistan diversify its export basket.
Though the nation derived many benefits from the treaty, it showed much callousness in observing compliance with the corresponding covenants. The last assessment by the EU for 2018-19 reported no progress on the legislation on labour rights, along with a lack of safer spaces for civil society, voices of dissent, and the safety of journalists. The status of corruption eradication was in the doldrums, with the National Accountability Bureau majorly targeting opposition party leaders.
Given the swinging blasphemy laws, sectarian fault lines are engulfing the minorities in Pakistan. Mounting cases of human rights violations have already given Human Rights Watch a lotto fret about. The increasing number of death penalties for blasphemies and adulteries, vigilantism by fundamentalists, state-sponsored forced disappearances, and the rise of anti-French sentiments are just a few instances compelling EU to renege the status. It can be conclusively noted that the current conditions in Pakistan are antagonistic toward the fundamental developmental objectives of poverty eradication and better governance through the EU’s policy of trade promotion.
The state has refused to curb its aggressive ways by refusing to abolish the death penalty. It has been oblivious to the numerous warnings given by EU members on losing its GSP+ status. European Parliament has repeatedly expressed concern over cases of honor killings and domestic violence against women in Pakistan. Moreover, the state’s role in sponsoring international terrorism has led even academicians to call for withdrawing the preference status. The state is nonchalantly valuing its rudimentary ways and draconian order over the trade-induced welfare of the masses, sabotaging its growth prospects. The country will lose an annual export value of around USD 3 billion if the government fails to ensure a GSP+ extension beyond 2023. Pakistan would have to pay the cost of non-compliance by losing its export revenue.
Despite being a signatory to various conventions on human rights, ethnic discrimination, and violence against Shias, Ahmadiyya community, minorities from Baloch, Sindhis, and Pashtuns have been common in Pakistan. On the labour rights front, Pakistan could not be any worse. As per Human Rights Watch report, the garment industry, which is the major exporter under GSP+, is also an unapologetic contributor to a wide range of labour rights violations characterized by forced overtime, lack of minimum wages and unionization, no maternity or medical leaves, and promotion of child labour.
Given the prevalence of elite capture in Pakistan, the favorable trade treaty has missed its intended beneficiaries, the Pakistani poor. Instead, big businesses and feudal landlords have conveniently siphoned off a significant chunk of the benefits of the preference scheme for themselves.
People’s participation through NGOs, academia, and civil society is often crushed, leaving no space for discourse and dissent on the noncompliance of international conventions. The laws are easier passed than ever executed in Pakistan.
Renewing Pakistan’s GSP+ would legitimize a bad model for the international community. It is a slippery slope. Renewal would signal that EU’s international mandates hold no water, disincentivizing nations which are sincerely striving toward establishing a democratic order. It would only strengthen the position of Pakistan’s elite while worsening the conditions of the poor and the vulnerable sections.
On the contrary, by withdrawing the privileges given to Pakistan, the EU can send a strong international message of intolerance towards any form of injustice and violation of human rights. It would discipline Pakistan to control human rights violations, protect labour and the environment and restore peace through communal harmony.
The apparent compliance issues in Pakistan are severe developmental and humanitarian issues brewing in Pakistan over the years. Reports indicate that various stakeholders, including businesses and intellectuals in Pakistan, are pumping their lobbying efforts to secure their position in the next GSP+. However, given the current socio-economic and political conditions, any step taken by Pakistan’s government in the wake of the impending review assessment would be an unsustainable quick fix to the structural havoc Pakistan’s economy and society have been enduring for years. Given the surmounting evidence of Pakistan’s failure to meet its agreed-upon goals, renewal of its GSP+ status would be an international assent to human rights violations, regional instability, and disregard for international covenants.