Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash
The EU has been urged to review its 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 Monday organised by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF).
Moderator, Willy Fautre, director of HRWF, a respected Brussels-based rights group, 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 international community.
Women, he asserted, were “still treated as 2nd class citizens” in the country, especially when it came to job opportunities and education.
It was pointed out that the literacy rate for women was just 45 percent compared with 69 per cent 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 concern in particular about the country’s blasphemy laws. He explained why those 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.
Bazan also joined other speakers, including Fautre, in calling for a review of EU-Pakistan trade relations.
The event, at Brussels Press Club, was told that the Pakistan National Assembly had “further tightened” its strict blasphemy laws by extending the punishment for those found instigating religious sentiment and figures connected to Prophet Muhammad.
A unanimous bill passed by the Pakistani assembly will, it was said at the event, increase more severe punishments and fines for those convicted under it.
This, it was said, has escalated concern among human rights activists and observers.
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 conference was told that 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% 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, the event was told, 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 €5.4 billion namely garments, bedlinen, terry towels, hosiery, leather, sports and surgical goods.
The event was also told the EU regularly sends monitoring missions to assess the situation on the ground and to subsequently reflect its evaluation in the publicly available report to the European Parliament and to the EU Member States in the Council.
Another conference participant, Manel Mselmi, who advises MEPs on international affairs, spoke passionately about women’s rights and a 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 Tuesday 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, then 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.