According to a Business Recorder exclusive, the European Union has informed the government in no uncertain terms that a continuation of the GSP Plus facility would be linked to a positive outcome in Asia Bibi's case - a Christian facing the death penalty for blasphemy. The case involved an argument with a group of Muslim women with whom Asia Bibi was harvesting berries and who were angry at her for drinking from the same water pitcher as them. Subsequently, she was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), a charge that she has denied, however, a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her to death in 2010. And pending appeal in the Lahore High Court Chief Justice Saqib Nisar declined a request for a hearing on 26th April 2017.
It is extremely unfortunate that, if executed she would be the first woman to be lawfully killed. However, her case has already led to two high profile assassinations - one, Salmaan Taseer, the former Governor Punjab who publicly supported Asia, and two, Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti who repeatedly stated that "I will go knock on every door for justice on her behalf and I will take steps for her protection."
There has been informed criticism from within Pakistan against the blasphemy law. Ali Danyan Hasan, Pakistan's Human Right researcher, stated that "the law creates this legal infrastructure which is then used in various informal ways to intimidate, coerce, harass and persecute" and it is "discriminatory and abusive." Nearly all national political parties, PML-N, PPP and PTI, support an amendment to this law, however, they have shied away due to what they fear as a backlash - violent street protests as well as loss of political support. And given that general elections are scheduled this year it is highly unlikely that the present parliament would have the courage to amend the law.
Today, such a backlash is all the more likely given the inexplicable decision of the government to amend the Khatm-e-Nabuwat law in September last year and replace the previous 'oath' with a 'declaration' in the nomination papers about finality of Prophethood, as noted in the Elections Bill 2017. The bill restoring the Khatm-e-Nabuwat laws was passed in October but nonetheless gave rise to a well organized movement - the Khatm-e-Nabuwat movement which began as a dharna in Islamabad that severely impacted on the life of the people of the twin cities. This was followed more recently by well-attended rallies demanding the resignation of Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah. On 20th January this year, a Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference at Data Darbar Lahore was extremely well-attended and there is evidence to suggest that this may emerge as a political force. In other words, it appears highly unlikely that there would be any change in the blasphemy law by this parliament.
Be that as it may, the European Union made 5.5 billion Euros imports from Pakistan in 2014, with GSP Plus status granted to Pakistan on 1st January 2014, making it a significant beneficiary of the facility. According to data released by the EU, more than 78 percent of Pakistan's exports (and around 80 percent of textiles and clothing) entered the EU under preferential rates. However, the EU noted that "while the textiles and clothing industry are the backbone of Pakistani exports, relying so heavily on one product category carries risks for Pakistan. Trade diversification would play an essential role in this respect." This has been the refrain of not only Business Recorder editorials but also of many a cabinet member though there has been no on the ground change in terms of policy to encourage trade diversification.
Asia Bibi is not the only issue casting dark cloud on GSP Plus. Human rights violations, strengthening the framework of human rights as well as civilian and political rights and criterion on torture and inhuman treatment of prisoners are some of other issues.
To conclude, if the GSP Plus facility is withdrawn, Pakistan's exports would decline and given our widening trade deficit, which is being met through heavy external borrowing, the economy would move towards a worsening of the balance of payment position requiring even more borrowing.