Will the Sialkot incident affect GSP Plus?

Published December 13, 2021
Pakistani industrialists pay tribute beside a photograph of late Sri Lankan factory manager Priyantha Kumara, in Sialkot on December 4. — AFP/File
Pakistani industrialists pay tribute beside a photograph of late Sri Lankan factory manager Priyantha Kumara, in Sialkot on December 4. — AFP/File

Ladies stripped and paraded, hundreds of rapes taped, a person burnt to death, but the business mill continues.

While random unverified tweets claim that Pakistan’s exports orders are suffering in the aftermath of the horrific Sialkot incident, all stakeholders contacted were unified in vociferously discrediting such a notion.

“It is an isolated incident,” said Khurrum Mukhtar, Patron in Chief of the Pakistan Textile Exporters Association. “The community responded in a positive manner and the government swiftly took action so I do not think that GSP Plus will be affected either.”

Other stakeholders admitted that while there was some reputational damage, there was no negative news from Lahore or Faisalabad, the bigger markets, of a drop in orders or a change in business as usual.

These incidents are adding up — the European Union would like to exercise some pressure, especially with regards to the blasphemy law

“Overall it was a disaster,” said a stakeholder who requested to not be named, “we can only do damage control now. But the country’s overall response, religious cleric statements and joint visits to the Sri Lankan embassy helped contain the situation.” The business community of Sialkot is trying to compensate the family with $100,000 and a lifetime pension for the wife, he added.

There seem to be no short term business repercussions of a mob murdering a man, perhaps for personal vengeance under the guise of the blasphemy law, but it can have longer-term consequences for when the GSP Plus is reviewed.

“It will figure somewhere when Pakistan’s status is being considered,” said Dr Manzoor Ahmed, a former ambassador to the World Trade Organisation .“These things have been adding up. The European Union would like to exercise some pressure, especially with regards to the blasphemy law.”

Earlier this year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a review of the GSP plus status granted to Pakistan in view of the “alarming” increase in the use of blasphemy accusations in the country.

The European Parliament highlights that while there have never been official executions, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws incite harassment, violence and murder against those accused. Regardless of the judicial procedures, people accused of blasphemy fear for their lives though it is widely known that the laws are manipulated for the personal interests of the accuser. A lot of those accused are human rights defenders, journalists, artists or the most marginalised people in society.

GSP Plus is viewed as a tool to enforce human rights in less developed countries. Those who point to the white portion of the flag or sprout quranic ayats and hadiths claiming that minorities are protected in Pakistan belong in straitjackets for their delusions.

A whole host of laws and policy measures exist on paper to broadcast Pakistan’s theoretical progress of human rights but the Sialkot incident is just one among many; there is no doubt that there will be another Priyantha Kumara in a few months, if not weeks.

And while business continues as usual, beyond words of condemnation and the furious Twitterati there will be no change. The reckoning, if and when it comes, in terms of a formal boycott of Pakistan’s products, sanctions, or removal of GSP Plus status, will also be more on political grounds than actual outrage.

Brexit has ensured that the United Kingdom, an ally historically, has no say in the GSP Plus review process. Southern Europe limited competes with some of Pakistan’s exports. France can hardly be expected to look kindly at a country that is placating a party that has been staging violent anti-France protests and demanding the expulsion of the French envoy.

To say nothing of the Muslim beheading the French school teacher Samuel Paty who showed caricatures in his class. The blasphemy mania has infected other countries with teachers in France claiming they are more cautious with what they say, according to media reports.

Punishing Pakistan through the withdrawal of GSP Plus is a line that European countries may pursue further down the road. And if the governments choose to exercise restraint, the consumers may not be so forgiving.

“On the purchase side, consumers check the label before buying a product. At least for a while there is a reaction and potential buyers shift to a competitor from another country,” said Dr Ahmed.

Regardless of the horrific nature of the most ghastly crimes in Pakistan, without an uproar from the international community that inflicts monetary damage, the worst among us continue to feel sanctioned. If the West chooses to inflict penalties high enough for the pain to be felt in the upper echelons of the powers that be, only then they will feel the need to influence the narrative on the ground. But for the moment, business continues as usual with no change on the horizon.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 13th, 2021

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