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EFSAS Commentary

The European Parliament resolution denouncing the deplorable state of human rights in Pakistan was overdue


It would not have come as a surprise to any Pakistan-watcher that the European Parliament, in view of the “alarming” increase in the abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, last week adopted a resolution calling for a review of the GSP+ status, the EU’s most beneficial trading relationship, which it had granted to the country. Once Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to put his stock behind the extremist and violent Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and its demand that the French Ambassador be evicted from Islamabad as punishment for French President Macron’s espousal of free speech in his country, a strong response from the European Union (EU) was no longer in doubt. What had been uncanny about Imran Khan’s exercise of the option to propose the French Ambassador’s expulsion in his country’s parliament was that his government, just a couple of days prior to such a decision being taken, had banned the TLP and declared it a terrorist entity. As had been underlined in the EFSAS Commentary of 23-04-2021, unable to withstand the pressure being exerted by this terrorist entity, which is just one among the dozens of such organizations that exist and prosper on the back of State patronage in Pakistan, PM Khan actually declared that he shared the TLP’s ideology and views on blasphemy. He called for blasphemy to be equated with the holocaust, and pledged to start a campaign involving all Islamic countries to pressurize Europe to ban blasphemy against Islam. Khan, obviously, had taken the matter too far for the EU to ignore and overlook.

The resolution adopted by the European Parliament was scathing in its criticism. It underscored that the situation in Pakistan “continued to deteriorate in 2020 as 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 including Ahmadis, Shia Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs; 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”. It pointed out that the highest number of accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan since 1987 took place in 2020. It urged the Government of Pakistan to “unequivocally condemn incitement to violence and discrimination against religious minorities in the country” and put in place “effective, procedural and institutional safeguards” to prevent the abuse of the blasphemy laws.

Expressing “deep concern” at the prevailing anti-French sentiment in Pakistan, the resolution referred to the recent violent protests by the banned TLP and said, “The repeated and deceptive attacks against the French authorities by radical Pakistani groups and recent statements by the Government of Pakistan on the grounds of blasphemy have escalated since the response of the French authorities to the terrorist attack against a French school teacher for defending freedom of expression”. It asserted that the EU Parliament considered the violent protests against France “unacceptable”.

The resolution also noted “an increasing number of online and offline attacks on journalists and civil society organizations, in particular against women and the most marginalized in society”. It observed that such attacks often included false accusations of blasphemy, which can lead to physical attacks, killings, arbitrary arrest and detention. The resolution drew attention to the fact that “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are increasingly used for personal or political score‑settling in violation of the rights to freedom of religion and belief and of opinion and expression”. It advised the Pakistan government to take “immediate steps” to ensure the safety of journalists, human rights defenders and faith-based organizations and to carry out prompt and effective investigations in order to uphold the rule of law and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Having sketched a vivid picture of where the EU assessed Pakistan to be perched, the resolution called upon the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) “to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of current events and whether there is sufficient reason to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of this status and the benefits that come with it, and to report to the European Parliament on this matter as soon as possible”. The GSP+ provides enhanced and preferential free trade between the EU and a small number of developing countries. Recalling that Pakistan has benefited from trade preferences under the GSP+ programme since 2014, the resolution emphasized that the economic benefits from this unilateral trade agreement for Pakistan were “considerable”. It reminded, however, that the GSP+ status “comes with the obligation to ratify and implement 27 international conventions including commitments to guarantee human rights and religious freedom”, and that “In its latest GSP+ assessment of Pakistan of 10 February 2020, the Commission expressed a variety of serious concerns on the human rights situation in the country”.

As a German Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Reinhard Bütikofer aptly put it after the resolution had been adopted, “GSP+ status is not a one-way street”. The Pakistan government’s response to the resolution, meanwhile, appeared to completely overlook the fact that the GSP+ status had been granted unilaterally to Pakistan by the EU and was essentially a dole. Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari’s description of the adoption of the resolution as “Unfortunate” and her suggestion that “The way forward is dialogue & negotiations, which we have been doing, not extreme public positioning” come across as unjustifiably confrontational and ill-informed. The EU has been emphasizing to Pakistan at least since 2014 that it urgently needed to improve its dismal human rights record, especially that pertaining to blasphemy. A report by the French news agency AFP on 27 November 2014 had informed that “The European parliament called Thursday on Pakistan to overhaul its blasphemy laws with a view to repealing them, saying they were ‘increasingly used to target’ Christians and other minorities… The resolution ‘calls on the government of Pakistan to carry out a thorough review of the blasphemy laws and their current application’… It also ‘calls on the government of Pakistan to abolish the death penalty, including for blasphemy or apostasy’”. Pakistan, rather than take heed and make improvements, has in the 7 years since 2014 only let the situation deteriorate further.

PM Imran Khan chaired a meeting on 3 May to assess the damage from the European Parliament resolution. Among the conclusions reached at the meeting was that none of Pakistan’s agreements on human rights issues with the EU related to religion, and that the estimated annual loss of $3 billion that would result from a EU decision to revoke its GSP+ status was well within absorbable levels, even for a country as deep in debt as Pakistan is. The meeting, therefore, decided to express disappointment over the adoption of the resolution by the European Parliament and pledged not to compromise on the country’s blasphemy laws, the draconian nature of which have been examined in the EFSAS Study Paper titled Guilty until proven innocent: The sacrilegious nature of blasphemy laws Pakistan.

The devil-may-care attitude to the resolution that was taken by the Pakistani government was inconsonant with the views of a sizeable number of Pakistanis. The daily Dawn in an editorial on 2 May described the European resolution as “deeply unsettling”. It asserted that “it should not take a threat from the EU for Pakistan to see how the blasphemy law is being misused”. It further said, “In fact, such misuse is very much a reality; far too many people have been falsely accused and incarcerated for years pending a trial and, in some ghastly cases, have been victims of vigilante violence”.

Respected Pakistani author and commentator Zahid Hussain wrote indignantly on 5 May that “It may not be the first time that questions have been raised about our dismal human rights record by the international community, but the latest EU parliamentary resolution is much more damning and consequential. The criticism not only reflects our failure to counter rising religious intolerance and bigotry, but also exposes a diplomatic debacle… The increasing number of incidents of misuse of the blasphemy law, particularly targeting members of minority religious groups, has long drawn criticism at home and abroad. Some latest cases have raised further concerns. Diminishing democratic freedoms in the country has also been a cause of worry. Unfortunately, successive governments here have failed to address these concerns. But the present government with its tendency to encourage religiosity has added fuel to extremism. Its virtual surrender last November to an extremist group and its apparent acceptance of all its demands including the expulsion of the French ambassador has come back to haunt the PTI government”. Hussain added, “It’s not just a matter of satisfying the international community; it is in the country’s own interest to fight extremism and curb human rights violations. Who can treat us as a responsible country when certain ministers have been perceived as inciting people to kill?”

Shireen Mazari in her reaction to the resolution had related it to ‘Islamophobia’ in Europe. Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, the Pakistan-based correspondent for The Diplomat, brought out how hollow the Pakistani allegations of Islamophobia really were when he wrote last week that “Indeed, while (Imran) Khan vociferously clamours against western ‘Islamophobia’, Pakistan conducts its own gory ‘Islamophobia’ against Ahmadiyya and Shia Islam. Elsewhere blasphemy against Hinduism is ubiquitous in Pakistan, with Khan’s own ministers openly mocking Hindu deities. Around 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls, mostly underage, are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan each year. And yet, instead of addressing the plight of those he was elected to represent, Khan is more interested in fighting ‘Islamophobia’ elsewhere. In this quest, he recently co-founded an ‘anti-Islamophobia TV channel’ in 2019, along with Mahathir Mohamad – who believes Muslims have a right to ‘kill millions of French’ – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Imran Khan understands that he is playing a dangerous game by exporting Islamic blasphemy laws and making threats to the West. And when talking to global audiences in the past, Khan has confessed that when living in Pakistan there is a fear associated with talking about ‘anything perceived to be sacrilegious’. It is the same fear that he now wants to instil in the West”.

These Pakistani experts, as also several others like them, leave little room to doubt the sorry state of human rights in Pakistan. The European Parliament, in such circumstances, had been exposing itself to serious questions by continuing to extend the benefits of its GSP+ programme to Pakistan, an egregious violator of human rights. The GSP+ process is designed to encourage human rights compliant behavior. By continuing to extend the programme despite being informed by various knowledgeable channels of the actual situation in Pakistan, the European Parliament was also leaving itself vulnerable to the allegation that it was tacitly encouraging the government of Pakistan to merrily continue with its violations. The overwhelming majority with which the resolution was passed – 662 to 3, with 26 not voting – showed that from the European perspective this situation could not be allowed to go on any further, and that Pakistan needed to take tough decisions and make the right choices if it wanted to continue to benefit from the EU’s generosity.  

The Pakistani government in choosing to reject the European Parliament resolution has conveyed quite clearly, however, that its relationship with the TLP, an outfit that it itself has termed “terrorist”, is weightier and more invaluable than that with the 27 democratic countries that constitute the EU.