National and International Issues

Pakistan’s Interfaith Harmony Landscape and European Parliament’s Resolution on GSP+ Status

Reference may be made to the various articles of Pakistan’s constitution. Article 4 provides that each citizen shall be treated in accordance with the law and shall enjoy equal protection of the law. Article 9 provides that no person shall be deprived of life and liberty save in accordance with the law. Article 10A confers on each citizen the right to fair trial and due process of law. These rights are not conditional upon one’s creed. Article 7 gives every person the right to form associations. The only restrictions that may be placed are in the interest of sovereignty of Pakistan, public order or morality but not on the basis of creed. 


As part of the efforts to promote religious harmony, in 2013, Ministry of Religious Affairs was renamed Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony (MoRAIH). A fundamental objective of the Ministry is to promote inter- and intra-faith harmony and tolerance amongst different segments of society and ensure adequate space for the minorities as guaranteed in the constitution. Under the directives of the Ministry, District Interfaith Harmony Committees have been constituted. Comprising members from all religions as well as government officials, these bodies are authorized to take immediate action to address any incident that may disturb interfaith harmony at local level. The 11th of August has been declared as the Minorities Day. Ten seminal religious festivals of the minorities are celebrated officially. Minorities Welfare Fund is operative under MoRAIH for repair/maintenance of places of worship, and grant of scholarships to deserving students. 


A major manifestation of the government’s unflinching commitment to promote interfaith harmony in recent years is the establishment of the Kartarpur Corridor. Opened in November 2019, the corridor enables Sikh pilgrims from India to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, one of their holiest places, situated in Kartarpur, Pakistan close to the border with the eastern neighbour, without having to get a visa. The opening of the corridor notwithstanding escalating tensions with India over its illegal annexation of Occupied Kashmir gave out the message that for the government and people of Pakistan religious harmony transcends political differences.  



The recent adoption of a resolution by the European Parliament (EP) – the legislative arm of the 27-member European Union (EU) – recommending a review of Pakistan’s status as a recipient of the GSP+ trade preferences primarily on the question of religious liberties is uncalled-for, for at least two reasons. One, it short-shrifts the efforts put in by the Pakistan government to promote interfaith harmony, peace and religious tolerance. Two, it marks yet another instance of developed economies using trade policy to twist the arms of a developing country with a view to advancing non-trade objectives.
The resolution dated April 28, 2021 is critical of the state of human rights in Pakistan, particularly with regard to religious freedom for the minorities and freedom of expression, application of the blasphemy law, pace and conduct of the judicial process in blasphemy cases, “forced conversion” of non-Muslims to Islam, and “an increasing number” of attacks on journalists and civil society organizations. The resolution alleges that Pakistan has been remiss in fulfilling its obligations arising out of its membership of such human rights conventions as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). 
In the light of its assessment of the human rights situation in Pakistan, the members of the EP have urged Islamabad to improve protection of civil liberties, particularly with regard to religious minorities, put in place effective, procedural and institutional safeguards to prevent “abuse” of the blasphemy law; and beef up protection of journalists and human rights activists. 
The said resolution calls upon the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, and the European External Action Service (EEAS) “to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of current events,” which may lead to suspension of this status. It also urges the EEAS and EU member states to “continue to support Pakistan with judicial reform and capacity-building to ensure that lower courts are equipped to promptly hold trials for those detained and to dismiss blasphemy cases that are not supported by sufficient reliable evidence.”
The validity of the EP’s observations about Pakistan aside, the foremost question that arises is: what does an arrangement for trade preferences — in the case on hand GSP+ — has to do with human rights and civil liberties? To answer this question, we need to look at the architecture of GSP+.
The full name of GSP+ is “The Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance.” The scheme was instituted by the EU in 2004 to grant preferential tariff treatment to imports from developing countries entering into any of the member state. Unlike free trade agreements (FTAs), which are a reciprocal arrangement, GSP+ is unilateral, that’s to say only one country or a bloc (called the donor) cuts or eliminates tariffs on imports originating in another country (called recipient or beneficiary). Thus in case of GSP+, the EU member countries slash custom duties on the imports from developing countries, while the latter don’t have to reciprocate by according a similar treatment to the imports originating in EU countries.
The EU is not the only bloc or economy which has an arrangement for unilateral trade preferences. Several other developed economies, such as the USA and Japan, maintain such an arrangement as well. However, there are two important features that mark off GSP+ from comparable schemes of other developed economies. One, GSP+ covers a far greater number of products than like schemes and is thus, at least in principle, more beneficial to recipient countries. The flip side is that GSP+ creates much higher stakes for developing economies and makes them more vulnerable to pressure from EU members.
Two, unlike other unilateral trade preferences, GSP+ is not open to all developing countries. Instead, only those developing economies can avail themselves of GSP+ which satisfy the relevant eligibility criteria. These criteria are exceedingly stringent and comprise various conditions including the stipulation that a recipient country must have ratified and “effectively” implements 27 multilateral conventions relating to human rights and sustainable development. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Committee Against Torture (CAT) are two of these conventions. The relevant EU agencies monitor the implementation of these conventions and take up with the recipient the perceived deficiencies, if any. That is the reason only a limited number of developing countries qualify for GSP+. At present, the number of GSP+ recipients is only nine.1
These GSP+ conventions are so felicitous that every progressive society may accede to them. The conventions are thus not a problem. Instead, the problem is the mandatory link that has been established between being a party to these treaties and being a beneficiary of GSP+. For one thing, the conventions’ compulsory implementation vitiates the very character of a unilateral arrangement. For another, it brings non-trade issues to bear upon a trading arrangement. One can’t question the need to eliminate child and forced labour as well as put an end to torture. But using them as a carrot or a stick to either help or penalize a vulnerable economy is unfair. 
It’s in this context that GSP+ establishes a power relationship in which the EU holds all the aces. It can at will change the eligibility criteria and enlist or delist a country from the arrangement even for reasons which have nothing to do with trade. For example, in 2008 Sri Lanka was de-listed from GSP+ for alleged excesses committed by the security forces during the final phase of a protracted war against the Tamil insurgency.
Pakistan was made a recipient of GSP+ in 2014, as prior to that the country didn’t meet the eligibility criteria including ratification of the 27 conventions. More than 80% of Pakistan’s exports benefit from GSP+. According to the European Commission (EC) data, between 2013 and 2019, Pakistan’s exports to EU countries went up from USD 6.9 billion to 9.9 billion cumulatively by 39.5% and by 6.6% on average per year. In 2020, exports dropped to USD 8.9 billion, mainly on account of the COVID-19 induced economic slowdown in EU countries. At the same time, it may be pointed out that the uptick in exports, though considerable, has not been commensurate with the duty-free treatment available to imports from Pakistan. One reason may be that while GSP+ only cuts tariffs, non-tariff measures – such as product standards – continue to apply.     
At any rate, GSP+ provides a good opportunity for the exporters from Pakistan to shore up their presence in the world’s single largest market. The present GSP+ arrangement will expire at the end of 2023 and, as in the past, is likely to be extended for another 10 years with or without amendments. It will be in the interest of Pakistan if our exports continue to benefit from the duty-free market access in EU states, which is better than that available to some of Pakistan’s competitors, notably India. 



Having explained the political-economy of GSP+, let’s turn to the efforts made by Pakistan to promote interfaith harmony and religious tolerance. To begin with, pluralism forms the basis of Pakistan, which is a multi-ethnic, multi-creed society. It was the attempts by the majority community to turn British India into a monolithic society that prompted Muslims to first come up with the demand for separate electorates and finally call for a separate state. The importance of interfaith harmony was spotlighted by the founder of Pakistan, the late Muhammad Ali Jinnah, while addressing the First Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947. He envisioned a Pakistan in which religion, caste or creed would have nothing to do with the business of the state. 


Regrettably, instead of going down to the roots of the problem, the European Parliament’s resolution in question scratches only the surface. Not only does it disregard the sentiments of Muslims over a remarkably sensitive issue, it sells short the tremendous sacrifices made by Pakistan in the war against religious extremism as well. Instead of coming out against Pakistan with all their guns blazing, EU institutions need to discuss the contentious matters through the bilateral mechanisms in place, not with the intention to dictate the terms to Islamabad but to enable both sides to better appreciate each other’s position. 


In accordance with the vision of the Father of the Nation, the constitution of Pakistan guarantees full religious freedom. With the exception of President and Prime Minister, all elected and non-elected offices are open to non-Muslims. Our key national institutions don’t restrict to a particular creed only. In the past, two non-Muslims occupied the highest judicial office of the country.
Reference may be made to the various articles of Pakistan’s constitution. Article 4 provides that each citizen shall be treated in accordance with the law and shall enjoy equal protection of the law. Article 9 provides that no person shall be deprived of life and liberty, save in accordance with the law. Article 10A confers on each citizen the right to fair trial and due process of law. These rights are not conditional upon one’s creed. Article 7 gives every person the right to form associations. The only restrictions that may be placed are in the interest of sovereignty of Pakistan, public order or morality but not on the basis of creed. 
By the same token, Article 20 confers on every citizen the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate his/her religion. Likewise, every religious denomination is entitled to set up and manage its religious institutions. Article 21 stipulates that no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax, the proceeds of which may be spent on propagation of any religion other than his/her own. Article 22 states that no person shall be required to receive religious education or attend a religious ceremony which relates to a religion other than their own. Article 26 provides that with regard to access to public places not meant for religious purposes, no citizen shall be discriminated against on the basis of religion. 
Article 27 prohibits discrimination in appointment to the government on the basis of religion. Article 28 gives every section of society having a distinct culture the right to promote it. Article 36 makes it obligatory upon the state to safeguard the legitimate rights of the minorities including their adequate representation in federal and provincial governments. Elections to national and provincial assemblies are held on the basis of joint electorate for Muslims and non-Muslims, as per the latter’s demand. However, to ensure adequate representation of the minorities, seats have been reserved for them both in parliament and in provincial legislatures.       
The national institutions have always upheld pluralistic principles. A few years back, Supreme Court upheld the death penalty awarded to the assassin of late Governor Punjab, Salman Taseer. A couple of years ago, the apex court acquitted a Christian woman of blasphemy charges because of lack of evidence. The principle established in both cases is that although blasphemy is punishable with death, citizens on their own can’t act as judge, jury or executioner; and that the conviction is to be done, and sentence is to be awarded by the courts on the basis of hardcore evidence. Thus it is not the constitutional, legal or institutional set-up that is at fault. Instead, culpability lies on the part of a section of society. 
Alive to the perils of religious extremism, which has taken a heavy toll on Pakistan’s society and economy, the authors of the National Action Plan (NAP), drawn up in the wake of the December 2014 Army Public School Peshawar tragedy, stipulates strict action against hate material and glorification of extremism, sectarianism, and religious intolerance; and provides for effective steps against religious persecution, ban on glorification of terrorists, and measures against abuse of internet and social media. There may be some gaps in implementation of the NAP, which are primarily attributable to the capacity rather than the will of the state.
As part of the efforts to promote religious harmony, in 2013, Ministry of Religious Affairs was renamed Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony (MoRAIH). A fundamental objective of the Ministry is to promote inter- and intra-faith harmony and tolerance amongst different segments of society and ensure adequate space for the minorities as guaranteed in the constitution. Under the directives of the Ministry, District Interfaith Harmony Committees have been constituted. Comprising members from all religions, as well as government officials, these bodies are authorized to take immediate action to address any incident that may disturb interfaith harmony at the local level. The 11th of August has been declared as the Minorities Day. Ten seminal religious festivals of the minorities are celebrated officially. Minorities Welfare Fund is operative under MoRAIH for repair/maintenance of places of worship, and grant of scholarships to deserving students. 
The National Commission for Minorities, which was set up in 1990, was reconstituted in May 2020 with a view to giving greater representation to the minorities. The Commission comprises high ranking civil servants (official members), and representatives of all the major religious communities (non-official members). Its Terms of Reference (TORs) include: Formulation of proposals for development of a National Policy on Interfaith Harmony and for amending laws/policies which may be discriminatory towards the minorities; recommending to the government such steps as may ensure fuller and effective participation by the minorities in all aspects of national life; looking into the grievances of minorities; and ensuring that their places of worship are preserved and well-kept.
A major manifestation of the government’s unflinching commitment to promote interfaith harmony in recent years is the establishment of the Kartarpur Corridor. Opened in November 2019, the corridor enables Sikh pilgrims from India to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, one of their holiest places, situated in Kartarpur, Pakistan close to the border with the eastern neighbour, without having to get a visa. The opening of the corridor, notwithstanding escalating tensions with India over its illegal annexation of Occupied Kashmir, gave out the message that for the government and people of Pakistan religious harmony transcends political differences.  
Very recently when a Hindu temple was attacked in Karak in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the culprits were arrested. The government, at the highest level, moved to ensure that the grievances of the Hindu community were redressed. The Chief Justice of Pakistan also ordered rebuilding of the temple without delay.
For all its benefits, globalization has brought in its train a slew of challenges including peaceful coexistence among members of different religions in the face of religious extremism and intolerance. This challenge isn’t exclusive to one society, region, continent or even civilization but is universal. Appreciating and respecting each other’s religious sensibilities is the foremost condition for ensuring that people professing different creeds and adhering to divergent ethos live in concord. There’s only one path to satisfying this condition — a dialogue among civilizations and societies undertaken in all earnestness, not with an eye to establishing the superiority of one culture or creed over the rest, reducing the plurality to a unity, or vilifying the adherents of a particular religion, but with a view to deepening inter-cultural understanding, tolerance and harmony. Initiating and sustaining such a dialogue and forestalling a clash among civilizations is the acid test for diplomacy and statesmanship in today’s world.
Regrettably, instead of going down to the roots of the problem, the European Parliament’s resolution in question scratches only the surface. Not only does it disregard the sentiments of Muslims over a remarkably sensitive issue, it sells short the tremendous sacrifices made by Pakistan in the war against religious extremism as well. Instead of coming out against Pakistan with all their guns blazing, EU institutions need to discuss the contentious matters through the bilateral mechanisms in place, not with the intention to dictate the terms to Islamabad but to enable both sides to better appreciate each other’s position. 
On its part, Pakistan attaches high importance to its political and economic relations with EU countries and would like these to get even stronger. As for the GSP+ facility, its continuation can serve as a significant contributor to Pakistan’s economy and prosperity and thus help bolster the government’s efforts to squash religious extremism. No doubt, the EU would also like these efforts to bear fruit.


Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @hussainhzaidi
 

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