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EU questions Pakistan’s record of human rights, restrictions on media

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The European Union (EU) has expressed concerns about cases of forced disappearance and torture as well as restrictions on media freedom in Pakistan. Terming them a violation of international treaties, it has urged Islamabad to implement laws for the protection of economic, social, and political rights.

A joint monitoring report released on Tuesday on Pakistan’s Generalised Scheme of Preference, known as GSP-Plus, also raised questions about “pervasive corruption”, and the use of anti-corruption rhetoric and legal cases for political purposes.

The report underlined that “despite continuous civilian rule since 2008, the military had played an outsized role in politics and the economy” of Pakistan.

The EU bloc released the report as part of the monitoring of the implementation of the 27 international conventions that Pakistan signed and committed to implement for continuous duty-free access to the European markets.

“While legislative reforms are significant, important concerns remain, notably on enforced disappearances, on allegations of torture as well as on restrictions of freedom of expression, and media freedom,” it said.

The European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) published the report.
The report to the European Parliament and the Council on the GSP covered the period from 2020 to 2022.

It also mentioned the May 9, 2023 riots and subsequent trials of civilians in the military courts.
While first steps to reduce the scope of death penalty had been taken, the report stated, further efforts were needed to align with international standards, namely by introducing a comprehensive revision of the mercy petition procedure.

Also, freedom of religion or belief and rights of persons belonging to minorities continued to be regularly violated, despite some efforts regarding interfaith dialogue, according to the report.

The EU said corruption, both political and economic, continued to be perceived as pervasive, and questions were raised on the independence of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Anti-corruption rhetoric and legal cases were heavily politicised, it added.

Restrictions on the civil society space through administrative hurdles, and other pressures on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) continued, even if the revised NGO policy of Nov 2022 foresaw accelerated procedures.

The report acknowledged Pakistan’s progress on the legislative front while emphasising the need for improving practical application in both letter and spirit. It would be crucial for Pakistan to continue legislative reforms and implement legislation so that they lead to tangible improvements for all Pakistanis, it said.

The 27 conventions covered four areas—human rights, labour rights, environmental standards and good governance for the 2020 to 2022 period. The report further highlighted the areas where more progress was needed.

Pakistan was awarded GSP-Plus status in Jan 2014 after the country ratified 27 international conventions and committed to implementing them. So far, four biennial reviews have been concluded under the current GSP scheme.

The GSP-Plus incentive grants Pakistan zero-rated or preferential tariffs on nearly 66% of tariff lines, enhancing the country’s ability to export to the EU markets.

From 2014 to 2022, Pakistan’s exports to the EU increased by 108% whereas imports from the EU by 65%. The total trade volume increased from €8.3 billion in 2013 to €14.85 billion in 2022.

In 2022, Pakistan’s exports to the EU were 59% higher than in 2019, while imports from the EU witnessed an increase of 9% over the same period.

EU Ambassador to Pakistan Dr Riina Kionka said that the GSP-Plus incentive had contributed positively to Pakistani society. “It has undeniably increased awareness of human rights at the grassroots level, of labour rights within businesses and export supply chains and of the significance of environmental considerations and good governance,” she said. 

Dr Kionka added that the full potential of the GSP-Plus benefit could only be realised by diversifying Pakistan’s exports to include more value-added products.

The report underlined that since 2020, Pakistan has adopted important laws in the field of human rights. However, there were also some developments putting into question the progress achieved, thus causing concerns, it added. 

“Challenges remain with respect to Pakistan’s capacity to uphold and protect the human rights of its citizens,” it said. “ILO (International Labour Organization) Conventions are often still not effectively implemented and enforced due to limited capacity of labour inspectorates,” it added.

“Child labour and forced labour persist at high levels. Discrimination of women in the labour market, namely limited access to job opportunities and lower wages for equivalent work, continues to be widespread.”

The report also mentioned the May 9 incident and the “street protests with violence against security forces and their installations”. It stated that in the aftermath, many protesters were arrested and taken for trial, including at military and anti-terrorism courts”.

The EU said that in the aftermath of the May 9, 2023 protests, civilians were being tried at military and anti-terrorism courts, which “implies a very wide interpretation of the notion of terrorism and gives rise to concerns about compliance with Article 14 of International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, guaranteeing the right to a trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal”.

According to the UN Human Rights Committee, the “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 “trials of civilians by military or special courts should be exceptional, ie 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”.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has already stopped the trial of civilians in the military courts.
Despite lacking a comprehensive policy to counter hate speech domestically, Pakistan has made efforts, in the last years, to position itself internationally as leading in activities to counter hate speech, namely anti-Muslim hatred, according to the report.

Media Freedom

Despite the legislative progress, the report noted, the media community reported pressure and harassment, limiting journalists’ ability to report. Pakistan continued to rank very low in international comparative rankings on press freedom, 150th out of 180, according to the EU. “Women journalists are particularly targeted. On several occasions, government regulatory agencies blocked cable operators and television channels that aired critical or contentious content”.

Several journalists suffered violent attacks and disappeared during the monitoring period, the EU said.
Online trolls targeted those who were expressing criticism of the civilian leadership or the military. “Journalists report that self-censorship is becoming a survival strategy for many.”

Besides the restrictions on media freedom, political activists, human rights defenders, and even elected representatives continued to see their freedom of expression limited through administrative, legal, and other measures, the EU said.

Vague concepts and the lack of adequate safeguards in relevant laws; in particular, the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act of 2016, allowed for stifling of critical and opposition voices, the EU report added.
Enforced disappearances continued and so did the impunity for the perpetrators.

The Commission on Forced Disappearances indicated that it had received 1,875 new cases and that it closed 1,814 cases in 2020-2021. However, the commission had been criticised, including by the Islamabad High Court in June 2022, for not fulfilling its duties and not prosecuting anyone responsible for enforced disappearances.

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