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Crucial human rights review

January 22, 2018

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THE European Commission is due to issue a status report this month on Pakistan’s compliance with the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Plus conditions, which also include an assessment of the human rights situation in the country.

The GSP Plus trading status is an instrument of the EU’s trade policy that aims to encourage developing countries to comply with core international standards in return for trade incentives.

Conditions to get and retain the special status include ratification of seven core international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT); and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Will Pakistan retain its GSP Plus status?

Prior to receiving the GSP Plus status in 2014, Pakistan ratified all seven treaties. And just before the first review of Pakistan’s implementation of the GSP Plus conditions in January 2016, Pakistan submitted its reports to the treaty-monitoring bodies under the periodic review procedures of these treaties, another requirement under the agreement.

In a report issued at the time, the European Commission noted with concern that “human rights violations remain widespread in the country”, but had commended Pakistan for a number of “constructive initiatives” such as “strengthening the institutional framework for human rights”. Based on this report, the EU decided to renew Pakistan’s GSP Plus status for two years.

Since then, Pakistan’s implementation of a number of international human rights treaties including the ICCPR, the ICESCR, and CAT has been reviewed for the first time by the expert committees created by the treaties.

The upcoming review will take into account the ‘concluding observations’ — or findings — of these bodies. This is particularly significant as one of the conditions in the GSP Plus agreement is that the most recent conclusions of the monitoring bodies under human rights conventions must not identify any serious failure to effectively implement them.

While it is commendable that Pakistan participated in the review process of these treaties and expressed its commitment to human rights, the findings of the committees show that much of this commitment remains unfulfilled in practice.

Take for example the review of Pakistan by the Human Rights Committee under the ICCPR. In its concluding observations issued in July, the committee noted that “the rights enshrined in the Covenant are not given full effect in the domestic legal order and that courts have, in certain cases, proved reluctant to apply the Covenant”.

It expressed concern about the implementation of the death penalty; that the National Commission of Human Rights is not fully independent; that violence against women is still prevalent; that the extension of the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians raises serious fair trial concerns; the blasphemy laws and the severe penalties they carry are incompatible with international standards; and the government’s international NGO policy, including “broad and vague grounds for cancellation of the registration” of INGOs, hampers their ability to work freely and raises concerns about the freedom of association.

Significantly, the committee also expressed concern at “the high incidence of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings allegedly perpetrated by the police and military and security forces” — a practice that continues to persist and even expand since the review in July.

Similarly, concluding observations issued by the Committee against Torture in May 2017 found “widespread use of torture by the police”. The committee expressed deep concern that “military forces, intelligence forces … and paramilitary forces … ” are implicated in a significant number of cases of extrajudicial executions involving torture and enforced disappearances, and regretted that Pakistan provided “no information on members of the military, intelligence services or paramilitary forces who had been prosecuted and punished for acts amounting to torture...”

The Committee against Torture also expressed concern about the “continued reports of intimidation and harassment, including physical attacks and administrative detention, of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists and their family members”, and like the Human Rights Committee, noted that “hundreds of enforced disappearances have been reported in recent years in the State party and that the State party’s authorities have not taken adequate steps to investigate the reports and identify those responsible.”

The European Commission is to take such findings into account as it prepares its review and decides whether or not to renew Pakistan’s trade incentives under the GSP Plus.

Pakistani authorities should take note that Sri Lanka’s GSP status was suspended for a number of years after 2010, when the European Commission found “significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme.”

Some of Sri Lanka’s shortcomings included the significant number of cases of extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances; the unwillingness or the inability of the police to investigate human rights violations; the inadequacy of the criminal justice system and the courts to prevent human rights violations and hold perpetrators accountable; and the failure of the authorities to take effective action to protect journalists and human rights defenders. To many observers, these findings have a number of parallels with Pakistan’s human rights situation today.

It is therefore crucial for Pakistan to take seriously the recommendations of the treaty-monitoring bodies, to prepare a concrete, action-oriented strategy in consultation with civil society organisations on their implementation, and to be in a position to demonstrate concrete and significant progress in practice.

Failure to do so would hurt the Pakistani people twice over — not only will they continue to be deprived of fundamental human rights guaranteed by Pakistan’s Constitution as well as international instruments, they also risk losing the economic benefits that result from the EU’s trade incentives under the GSP Plus.

The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.
reema.omer@icj.org
Twitter: reema_omer

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2018

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