Monday, February 26, 2024

Blasphemy legislation in Pakistan: Which response should be given by the EU?”

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By José Luis Bazan, Legal Adviser for International Religious Freedom, Migration and Asylum, COMECE Secretariat, Brussels

On 8 May, HRWF organized a conference titled “EU-Pakistan: Human rights, religious freedom and the GSP+”, at the Press Club in Brussels. MEP Peter van Dalen who has for years been a staunch defender of human rights in Pakistan could not be present but he sent us a video (Minute 14’32”) with a strong message on the issue.

NGO representatives in Belgium, Pakistan, Italy and the US participated in the event addressing a series of serious issues. HRWF has the pleasure to present you parts of José Luis Bazan’s contribution to the debate:

“What is the GSP+?

The Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) is an EU scheme which grants privileged access (reduced or zero duties) to the EU market to products from certain less developed countries. When the eligible country gets GSP+ status, its products across approximately 66% of all EU tariff lines enter the EU market with 0% duties.

To become a beneficiary of the GSP+ statusthe beneficiary country must demonstrate a tangible progress on the implementation of 27 international treaties regarding labour rights, good governance, climate and environment, and human rights (including freedom of religion and other rights pertaining to religious minorities and their members).

Why Pakistan?

The European Single Market, with over 440 million consumers, is Pakistan’s most important destinationPakistan exports worth EUR 5.4 billion, namely garments, bedlinen, terry towels, hosiery, leather, sports and surgical goods. Pakistani exports to the EU are dominated by textiles and clothing, accounting for 75.2% of Pakistan’s total exports to the EU in 2020.

The GSP+ has been very beneficial for Pakistani business, increasing their exports to the EU market by 65% since the country joined GSP+ in 2014. As a result of the GSP+, more than 76% of Pakistan’s exports enter the EU duty and quota free. This represents almost 20% of Pakistan’s exports globally.

Pakistan is a country of high concern for its systematic and serious religious freedom and other human rights’ violations.

On 29 April 2021, the European Parliament called on the Commission and the European External Action Service to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of recent human rights abusesas “the government systematically enforced blasphemy laws and failed to protect religious minorities from abuses by non-state actors, with a sharp rise in targeted killings, blasphemy cases, forced conversions, and hate speech against religious minorities (…); whereas abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape and forced marriage remained an imminent threat for religious minority women and children in 2020, particularly those from the Hindu and Christian faiths”.

On 16 January 2023, six UN Special Rapporteurs expressed alarm at the reported rise in abductions, forced marriages and conversions of underage girls and young women from religious minorities in Pakistan and called for immediate efforts to curtail these practices and ensure justice for victims.

We must also pay attention to the violation of the educational freedom of students and parents of religious minorities in the education system:

o  The new Single National Curriculum (SNC) violates the right not to receive religious instruction against the religious beliefs of parents and those of the child: it imposes Muslim instruction in non-religious mandatory subjects (History, Mathematics…).

o  The evaluation system that empowers the knowledge of Islam giving extra points to them, discriminating non-Muslim students.

o  Authorised schoolbooks promote Islam among non-Muslim students in public schools.

On Jan. 17, 2023, the Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously voted to expand the country’s laws on blasphemy extending the punishment to those deemed to have insulted the Muhammad ‘s wives, family and companions, with 10 years in prison or life imprisonment. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has asked the Government, through its police, to deal more carefully with blasphemy cases and avoid the misuse of blasphemy laws,[1] in a process in August 2022.

The extreme social and legal vulnerability of members of religious minorities in Pakistan, most of them belonging to the poorest sections of society, make them easy targets of abuse, with no real possibility of claiming their human rights in a due process, often denied in law or in fact, in a context where the police and judicial authorities (particularly those of the lower courts) show little or no interest in prosecuting the crimes of which they are victims and in protecting their fundamental rights.

Why now?

The European Commission proposed on 22 September 2021 a new GSP Regulation, as the current one in force expires on 31 December 2023. New international conventions will be added to the list of obligations that GSP countries should respect.

An EEAS/European Commission report which will be adopted by the College of Commissioners and addressed to the Council and Parliament should have been published at the beginning of 2023.

The proposed GSP regulation requires the approval of the Parliament and the Council through the ordinary legislative procedure. This increases the political nature of the GSP+ which will be more than a mere trade agreement. Unlike the European Parliament, the EU Council wishes to maintain the Commission proposal to make GSP aid to beneficiary countries conditional on the readmission of their nationals who are illegally present in the EU. This issue was the subject of a debate characterised by particularly strong German opposition. A comprehensive EU-Pakistan dialogue on migration was launched in November 2022, with Commissioner Johansson visiting Pakistan.

Once adopted, the new EU GSP Regulation will apply from 1 January 2024 for 10 years.

The European Commission extended Pakistan’s GSP+ status  but it will have to re-apply for get the GSP+ status before the end of 2015. Meanwhile, the current preferences continue to be applied.

Conclusions and proposals

This situation calls for a reassessment by the European Commission in its future discussions with the Pakistani authorities on the preservation of the country’s status as a beneficiary of GSP+ status, as it is clear that Pakistan shows little respect for the above-mentioned international obligations, in particular in relation to the country’s religious minorities. In addition, some report about how the ruling elite in Pakistan had used this instrument for their personal gains.[2]

Clear and precise demand for due legislation and practice should be made to Pakistani authorities in relation to religious freedom and minorities, as a condition to the GSP+ renewal, including:

Specific measures, such as:

1.   Transfer of all blasphemy law cases to courts in the capital to avoid social pressure against first instance magistrates on the ground.

2.   Immediate police protection of accused of blasphemy, and possible transfer to a safe place along with his family.

3.   Criminal prosecution of false denouncers of blasphemy cases and severe punishment imposed upon them.

4.   Disciplinary measures to members of the police and law enforcement bodies that don’t protect the accused of blasphemy or mishandle the case.

General measures, such as:

5.   Reform of the National Single Curriculum and school textbooks with an appropriate portrayal of indigenous religious minorities, including their historical presence in the land, and their contribution to the country.

6.   Due investigation, prosecution and condemnation of perpetrators of crimes against members of religious minorities.

7.   Special Prosecutor/Court to protect minors belonging to religious minorities, including e.g., young girls against forced marriage, and an enforced ban of child marriage, making their consent non-valid in cases where the girl belongs to a religious minority.”

Published by Human Rights Without Frontiers

See the full conference on YouTube:

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