The European Union Extends GSP+ Status to Pakistan and Simultaneously Wavers on Extending FoRB Special Envoy Mandate [op-ed]

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Sydney Kochan, Government Relations and Special Projects, Jubilee Campaign

Two pieces of news were recently released in mid-2020 which appear to have no relation to each other on the surface but have together drawn the attention of human rights and religious freedom activists alike for their troubling implications for the future of Pakistan and its marginalized citizens, particularly religious minorities. These are the extension of the GSP Plus Status with the European Union to Pakistan and the European Union’s wavering stance on whether to renew the mandate for the position of Special Envoy for the promotion of religious freedom.

In early May it was announced that the European Union would extend the Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) status of Pakistan until 2022. This status“allows vulnerable developing countries to pay fewer or no duties on exports to the EU”[1] and has been provided to Pakistan since 2014. The status is only to be granted to states that make meaningful steps to incorporate values and protections of the 27 core international conventions into domestic law and practice and is granted with the additional pre-requisite of “good governance.”[2] The European Parliament has extended this status for Pakistan following the European Committee on International Trade’s expression of satisfaction that Pakistan had made positive steps in this regard.[3] In particular: they cited Pakistan’s progress on, “adopting laws on the protection of women and children rights; elimination of honor killings; protection of transgender persons; protection of the environment; and good governance.”[4]

Pakistan still retains their historical track record however, of religious persecution – though Asia Bibi was eventually released other prisoners of conscience have taken her place – charged under the unjust blasphemy laws in sections 295-A and 295-C of the penal code. In 2014, Pakistani authorities arrested and charged Pakistani Christian couple Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel with “insulting the Qur’an” and “insulting the Prophet” despite having little evidence. Following the sentence the couple have continually had their blasphemy hearing postponed – this is common practice for many of the religious minorities charged with blasphemy. In the EU Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (’GSP+’) assessment of Pakistan covering the period 2018 – 2019, it is explained that, despite that “laws discriminating against religious minorities remain [an] element of high concern” when reviewing the possibility of extending a nation’s GSP+ status, the faulty application of blasphemy laws continue to be a major source of persecution against Pakistan’s religious minorities, and the effects of attempts at reform “on addressing miscarriages of justice for those accused of blasphemy remains to be demonstrated.” 

In other news, the European Union has been sending mixed signals regarding whether the mandate of the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) will be extended- according to ADF International, “it recently stated the position would be terminated in a letter responding to an appeal by international experts on religious freedom. Now, in a statement in an article the Commission has stated that the position remains under further review.”[5] The EU Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief is an increasingly necessary role in international relations and foreign diplomacy, as it takes on the task of making country visits and is the primary reporter on religious freedom conditions around the world.

While these two separate pieces of news – the EU’s extension of GSP+ status to Pakistan and the EU’s wavering stance on renewing the Special Envoy for FoRB mandate – appear to have little to no interrelation, it is important to note that religious freedom is a core component of human rights and is included in some of the 27 conventions relevant to provision of GSP+ status, and if the provision of human rights is an imperative pre-requisite for the preferential GSP+ status of a nation, it should naturally be a major point of consideration when deciding on the extension or withdrawal of such nation’s GSP+ status.

Moreover, the continuation of the mandate of the Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental reporting mechanism to ensure the EU continuously monitors GSP+ beneficiary countries’ effectively in relation to freedom of religion. The Special Envoy on FoRB, though a young mandate, has been remarkably successful- in addition to embarking on country visits and publishing detailed reports- the Special Envoy has successfully advocated for the release of religious prisoners of conscience, such as Asia Bibi of Pakistan. In 2017, Special Envoy Jan Figel effectively used the GSP+ trade discussions in negotiations with Pakistani authorities suggesting that sanctions may be a course of action if the government continued to deny Bibi’s release. After nearly a decade incarcerated under Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws the special envoy’s efforts led to Asia Bibi’s release.

In light of the above, the confirmed termination of the FoRB mandate would be a major detriment to the advocacy of international religious freedom. The recent extension of GSP+ status to  Pakistan – who has been shown to be a routine violator of human rights and does not hold a record of “good governance” – is a case in point. Experience shows that without the existence of a FoRB Special Envoy, a proven and effective voice in combatting religious persecution, religious freedom violators will essentially receive a ‘green light’ to continue persecuting and discriminating against religious minorities with little to no repercussions. Cases such as that of Shafqat and Shagufta will be forgotten in the long list of other EU priorities and the voices of EU delegates raising religious freedom will lose a vital platform for engagement in the Special Envoy on FoRB – to expose States’ violations and call into question the moral permissibility of Pakistan and other states’ GSP+ status with the EU. Also while the GSP+ status aims to create longterm changes in the country the Special Envoy on FoRB provides immediate and necessary advocacy and respite.

Pakistan is considered by many human rights and religious freedom organizations as one of the hallmark nations of religious persecution- Pakistan ranks the 5th most dangerous nation for Christians by Open Doors World Research Unit[6] and the state Department re-designated Pakistan as as Country of Particular Concern in December 2019. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), however, recommends that the State Department continue to classify Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern, and that the United States and Pakistan should “enter into a binding agreement pursuant to Section 405(c) of the International Religtius Freedom Act” to ensure that Pakistan makes genuine and calculable steps to promote religious freedom.[7] It is inarguable that Pakistan is a routine violator of human rights and does not boast a record of “good governance” which would ensure its eligibility for the designation of a country with GSP+ status with the European Union; however, the elimination of the position of Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief would eradicate an imperative reporting mechanism that would disclose Pakistan’s reluctance to realize human rights and religious freedom for its citizens and expose its ineligibility for GSP Plus status, thus undermining the credibility of the entire GSP program.


[1] Sajjad Hussain, “EU extends Pak”s GSP-Plus status for two years,” Outlook The News Scroll, 7 March 2020, available at: https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/eu-extends-paks-gspplus-status-for-two-years/1754771

[2] European Commission, Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP), 29 May 2020, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/development/generalised-scheme-of-preferences/

[3] Pakistan Today, “EU extends GSP-Plus status for Pakistan,” 6 March 2020, available at: https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2020/03/06/eu-extends-gsp-plus-status-pakistan/

[4] https://ec.europa.eu/transparency/regdoc/rep/10102/2020/EN/SWD-2020-22-F1-EN-MAIN-PART-1.PDF

[5] ADF International;, “Mixed messages on religious freedom. Commission still undecided on Special Envoy,” 19 June 2020, available at: https://adfinternational.org/news/mixed-messages-on-religious-freedom-commission-still-undecided-on-special-envoy/

[6] Open Doors World Watch Research, Pakistan: Country Dossier, February 2020, available at: http://opendoorsanalytical.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Pakistan-WWL-2020-Country-Dossier-February-update.pdf [accessed 22 June 2020].

[7] Harrison Akins, Policy Update: Pakistan, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, June 2020, available at https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Pakistan%20Policy%20Update.pdf [accessed 26 June 2020].