31st Mar 2020


Spotlight on Pakistan and Philippines in EU trade report

  • Many thousands are reported to have been killed by the Philippines government's anti-drugs campaign, with Amnesty International describing it as a "large-scale murdering enterprise" (Photo: mansunides)

Since 2005, the EU has implemented a scheme in which low and lower-middle income countries may receive preferential trade conditions in exchange for ratification and implementation of 27 conventions on human and labour rights, environmental protection and good governance.

This Generalised Scheme of Preference Plus (GSP+) has had some real benefits, both economically and with respect to enforcing the related conventions.

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However, key to its credibility is ensuring that the EU uses the scheme to hold participating countries to account for any continued human rights violations and inaction.

One such opportunity to do so will present itself soon, when the European Commission will report on the scheme's progress to the European Parliament and Council.

GSP+ has enabled many low and lower-middle income countries, and particularly their manufacturing and export sectors, to benefit economically and create jobs over the years.

Simultaneously, many European businesses and their customers have benefited from the import of tariff-free products and raw materials.

The scheme has also helped the passing of key legislation in these countries, increased awareness and demand for human and labour rights reforms, and the training and resourcing of institutions responsible for implementing and monitoring the conventions.

In the coming days, the European Commission will report, as it does every two years, on whether the eight countries currently holding GSP+ status have been respecting their commitments. The EU's stance towards two of the beneficiary countries will be closely watched: Pakistan and the Philippines.

These two countries benefit most from the scheme, but also raise the greatest human rights concerns. Some 74 percent of all exports under the GSP+ scheme come from Pakistan and 22 percent from the Philippines.

The other six countries, such as Armenia, Bolivia and Sri Lanka, share the remaining 4 percent.


In its last report two years ago, the European Commission stated that the possible lowering of the age of criminal responsibility and re-introduction of the death penalty would both be considered significant backwards steps with respect to the Philippines' international obligations.

The EU also stated that the nature of the Philippines' campaign against drugs was "a matter of grave concern", diplomatic language in a situation where some human rights groups found that almost 12,000 people had been killed at that point. The situation has not improved.

Many thousands more are reported to have been killed by the Philippines government's anti-drugs campaign since, with Amnesty International describing it as a "large-scale murdering enterprise".


The situation in Pakistan is less extreme and there have been recent government initiatives to better protect human rights, but serious concerns remain.

In the last report the commission highlighted "worrying developments" and "grave concerns" about the generally weak rule of law in protecting women and children, and the longstanding and widespread issues of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and executions.

Human Rights Watch has recently noted that in Pakistan, "enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture take place with impunity while security forces exercise undue political influence over civilian authorities."

The group also wrote that authorities have failed to establish adequate protection or accountability for abuses against women and girls.

In several participating countries, the Berlin-based Democracy Reporting International (DRI) has found that local civil society organisations consider the GSP+ scheme's monitoring and enforcement to be opaque and weak.

The overall GSP regulation allows for the EU to take several steps in response to such violations, including the option of temporarily removing tariff preferences while the evidence is under review and cooperation is being sought from the country in question.

This was the approach taken with Sri Lanka in 2010. Any such steps beyond simple admonishment would be an important statement by the EU in light of these serious violations, also providing greater impetus for national civil society organisations to advocate for reforms themselves.

The commission's report, and the subsequent response to its findings by the European parliament and council, is an opportunity for the EU to reinforce its stance in favour of human rights.

The scheme can be a win-win for people in beneficiary countries: but only if the EU makes sure that more exports mean more jobs coupled with genuine domestic protection for human and labour rights.

Author bio

Ciaran O’Reilly is GSP+ Global programme manager at Democracy Reporting International (DRI) in Berlin.

DRI has been supporting and empowering civil society in GSP+ countries to monitor rights and support reforms that are needed for beneficiary countries to meet their commitment under the scheme. These efforts have been funded by the European Union since 2017.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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