Posted on Sep 13, 2021
Former European Commissioner Ján Figeľ, Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union, recently addressed a high-level conference in Brussels on the controversial issue of suspension, as called for in a European Parliament resolution, of Pakistan’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) trading agreement with the bloc.
The European Parliament recently called - almost unanimously - for the repeal of this instrument on the basis of Pakistan’s poor human rights record, highlighting as a matter of particular concern abuses of the country’s blasphemy laws, and its restoration of the death penalty in June 2013, after a six-year moratorium.
Figel’ reiterated that whilst in the global context blasphemy, the act of insulting another’s religious beliefs is a practice that is slowly but surely receding, there are still however 84 countries that maintain blasphemy laws.
However, he singled out Pakistan amongst those countries for its mandatory imposition of the death penalty for those found guilty of blasphemy against the Prophet, whilst also noting that Mauritania has also recently adopted similar blasphemy laws to those of Pakistan.
(The European Parliament) Calls on the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of current events and whether there is sufficient reason to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of this status and the benefits that come with it, and to report to the European Parliament on this matter as soon as possible.
In August of this year, An eight-year-old Hindu boy became the youngest person ever to be charged with blasphemy in the country. He is believed is to be currently held in protective police custody at this time. The community from which he hails has, however, come under threat, with a Hindu temple being attacked by a baying mob.
Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, and Patron of the Pakistan Hindu Council, said at the time: “The attack on the temple and blasphemy allegations against the eight-year-old minor boy has really shocked me. More than a hundred homes of the Hindu community have been emptied due to fear of attack.”
Dutch MEP Peter van Dalen, a member of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, and its Delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia, outlined the concerns felt by the European Parliament over the blasphemy laws “for some time.”
In April of this year, along with others, he proposed the motion in the parliament which called for the European External Action Service to “revise” Pakistan’s GSP+ status, telling the conference “we have not seen many changes in Pakistan. Maybe we would postpone it (GSP+) in order to put more pressure on the Pakistani government.”
He continued, “what I am missing at the moment is an active Prime Minister, an active government, taking the lead to do away with these blasphemy laws.”
However, referring to current situation in Afghanistan - now in the hands of the Taliban - and the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, he feared that judges and the government will be coming under increased pressure to maintain the status quo, which is why he believes that now is the right time for the EU to apply pressure by revising or postponing the GSP+ status.
He pointed out the fact that Parliament is overwhelmingly behind his call: 681 MEPs supported his April resolution, with only 3 voting against, what he described as a “historic outcome.”
Up to now Pakistan has ignored the repeated appeals by the United Nations, the European Union institutions, the United States, the UK and other countries to review its blasphemy laws, or at least to ensure the necessary safeguards are in place to prevent the abuse of such laws… It is time for the EU to take a courageous stand, and to put an end to this intolerable situation.
The economic case for the Parliament’s argument is strong.
Dr. ZsuZsa Anne Ferency, consultant with HRWF and a former political advisor to the European Parliament, highlighted the degree of leverage - soft power - GSP+ gives to the EU.
In the case of Pakistan, the share of the benefits from the agreement accruing to that country make up almost 80% of the total, with 20% to the EU. GSP+ is clearly far more important to Islamabad than it is to Brussels.
Suspension of the agreement would particularly hit Pakistan’s clothing and textiles sector - a major source of income for the country, and a major employer.
Dr. Ferency also explained to the conference the procedure by which the EU would suspend the agreement.
The conference was chaired by prominent humans rights defender Willy Fautre, Director of Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), which has been monitoring the situation in Pakistan, and in particular the blasphemy laws, for many years.
Also present were:
Dr. Shahid Mobeen, Professor of Philosophy at the Pontifical Urban University in the Vatican City.
Manel Msalmi, International Affairs Advisor of Members of the European Parliament.
Andy Vermaut, Brussels spokesman of Alliance internationale pour la défense des droits et des libertés, Paris.
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