Scepticism about the EU’s Democratization and Human Rights Efforts in Pakistan

Written by | Thursday, July 31st, 2014
Xavier Nuttin

Exclusive Interview with Xavier Nuttin – Expert Policy Advisor, European Parliament

 EUBULLETIN: The European Union’s relationship with Pakistan has been quite complex and full of twists and turns. As an expert in the European Parliament, an institution that has sought to significantly influence the EU’s policy towards Pakistan, can you assess if the EU’s effort to carve out more rights for the women in Pakistan has been successful? Have the EU’s strategy in this area yielded substantial results?

NUTTIN: It is a long and sometime I feel that it is also a hopeless process. There are two very important ideas underpinning the EU-Pakistan relations. One is that the EU has decided that we should engage with Pakistan, despite those issues on human rights and on freedoms. So, we have this Five-Year Engagement Plan that tries to develop both political and human rights relationship emphasizing common interests and values. And to support this, we have this GSP Plus, GSP or Generalized System of Preferences refers to a trade preferences and GSP Plus is an even a better system of trade preferences for countries that have signed and ratified the core UN conventions on human rights and that are committed to implement those conventions.
Pakistan was a candidate and the EU decided last year, and it came to force on 1 January 2014, to apply this GSP Plus in relation to Pakistan which means that Pakistan can export to the EU without paying any import duties. This was the kind of trade-off saying we grant trade preferences to Pakistan as sort of incentive on the condition that you sign and implement this core UN convention on human rights. And we have also then built up a system of monitoring and reporting so that every two years we can suspend the trade preferences if the other side fails to meet its obligations.

EUBULLETIN: However, many scholars and experts are of the view that you can’t simply change a society and its deeply entrenched customs and culture from outside by imposing your will on a country like Pakistan.

NUTTIN: Exactly! And I can tell you that when the Committee on Human Rights in the European Parliament visited Pakistan in August 2013, this was exactly the impression we had. That all these officials from the Pakistani government we met, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, fully embraced the ideas of what needs to be improved in their country. They had a clear idea and they fully understood what should be done and what was going wrong. With the exception of the blasphemy law on which there is a total disagreement between both sides. But for the rest, for the rights of the women, for the children’s rights, for the freedom of speech, freedom of media and assembly, they were fully aware. But at the same time, we fully understood that the society in general is not ready or does not want a change and that the Pakistani politicians will not push for it.

EUBULLETIN: But who does not want the change – is it the grassroots or the middle class people in Pakistan? It is widely understood that in a developing country like Pakistan, the middle class and the members of the elite live worlds away from the vast majority of the population.

NUTTIN: That’s the problem because we met government officials and we met civil society. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there is a very vibrant civil society in Pakistan with extremely competent people and we were completely convinced that they know exactly what to do to instigate a change in Pakistani society. But the gap between these members of the country’s elite we met and the vast majority of the population, which remains uneducated and under the control of the traditional Islamic leaders, is huge and I think that it is now getting even bigger. So, we came back with the idea that, yes, we should offer incentives to the Pakistani government because there is simply no other alternative than to try to offer them something but we were also very pessimistic about the eventual outcome of our efforts. But despite this general skepticism, we still have to try.

EUBULLETIN: Now a question arises here as to why the EU does not shift more attention to education because by educating the lay people in general and the women in particular, you may make them more aware of their rights and more aware of the broader context of their religion? I think that by doing that, these people will also be less susceptible to being ‘brainwashed’.

NUTTIN: I tell you what is foreseen by the European Commission from this year – poverty reduction as the important global and cross-cutting objective, and then providing assistance in the area of democratization, human rights and law enforcement, which is important for us as well. And the other one is world development and natural resources management and the first one is education and human resource development. So, these are three main areas: we hope to address poverty reduction through supporting democracy and human rights, though world development and, finally, through education. You can see that all these strategies go hand in hand and this is the European Commission’s program for the next seven years.

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