Separate and Unequal: Pakistan and the EU as the quintessential anti-human rights team

“Institutionalised discrimination.”  “Lack of opportunities.”  “Separate and unequal citizens.”

Those are just a few phrases that have been used to refer to the reality religious minorities’ face in Pakistan. Hindus, Sikhs, Shia Muslims, and the Ahmadi, another Muslim minority, endure intense persecution in Pakistan on the basis of their faith. As a result, the percentage of religious minorities in Pakistan has plummeted. A recent report on religious freedom in Pakistan was compiled by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) Alberto Cirio, Fulvio Martusciello, Ryszard Czarnecki, Indrek Tarand, and Heinz K Becker. That report revealed that, due to religious persecution, what once was a 25 percent religious minority population now rests at a mere 3.7 percent of the total population.

Discrimination and oppression present themselves in a variety of mediums within Pakistani society. The MEP report found that it is embodied within the constitution, which establishes Islam as the country’s official religion; it is incredibly prevalent in the education system, which stipulates compulsory Quran reading and whose textbooks falsely portray the beliefs and ideologies of various minority groups; it is exhibited through forced conversions and forced marriages, which is particularly a weapon used against women and girls; and it has been illustrated through the majority Muslim-population’s use of threats and vandalism against minority communities, in many cases leading to the demolishing of Hindu temples and Christian churches.  

Although law enforcement should be a place to turn to for justice and reparations, the MEP report holds that, in Pakistan, the local police are often corrupt and biased in favour of the majority community—the Muslim community. This prevents members of religious minority communities from “effectively filing cases and complaints of sexual harassment, violence, and other crimes.”

Under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences, Pakistan benefits from GSP+ status—a special arrangement between the EU and the Pakistani state that “slashes tariffs to 0% for vulnerable low and lower-middle income countries” so long as they agree to and  take steps to implement 27 different international conventions regarding human rights, labour rights, environmental protections, and good governance practices.

The EU claims that every single one of its GSP+ beneficiaries absolutely must respect and adhere to the principles of fifteen core conventions that lay out broad human and labour rights protections.

When prompted, EU spokespeople drum that response down the throats of anyone who dares to ask about the human rights violations in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, or the protection of women and girls and religious freedoms in Sri Lanka, or the crises of domestic violence and widespread discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Armenia—all of whom have governments who directly benefit from the GSP+ scheme and are therefore required under contract with the EU to ratify those previously mentioned 27 international conventions on human rights.  

But as with the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, and Armenia, Pakistan has continuously committed egregious human rights abuses, particularly in the arena of religious persecution, and has faced little to no consequences from the EU.  

The problem—because there is clearly and undoubtedly a problem—is not with Pakistan. Pakistan does face a lengthy and involved process if it truly desires to achieve the cross-spectrum equality and civil rights protections that its women, youth, and men are entirely capable of securing for themselves. Religious persecution is a massive barrier to full participation in social and cultural life, particularly for women and girls. The threat of rape, abduction, other forms of sexual abuse, and broad discrimination function as barriers to education and participation in both local communities and wider societal circles. Women and girls are vital to Pakistan’s future, period.

But make no mistake: the problem here is with the EU. And it is a problem that MEPs Alberto Cirio, Fulvio Martusciello, Ryszard Czarnecki, Indrek Tarand, and Heinz K Becker rightly identified in their report on Pakistan’s religious minorities.

It is worth noting that the EU is not blind to these human rights abuses.

Simply by entering into a trade preference agreement with Pakistan, the European Union has communicated that it recognises it has an opportunity to model in principle what an equal, rights-forward society can look like.

The EU itself is not perfect. There is a great need for the EU to continue to address the needs in its own civil and government sectors. Until it does, it is unfortunately the need for improvement within European society that has translated into a willingness to sanction programmes, actions, and behaviours abroad that do not prioritise the very human rights the EU claims to hold sacred.

As long as the Pakistani state continues to both carry out and support a widespread slashing of human rights protections for its people—particularly through religious-based persecution—while receiving millions in financial aid “development packages” from the European Union, the EU does nothing more than continue to make a name for itself as a sponsor of state-sanctioned terrorism.

Referring to this EU crisis of conscience as anything less is dangerously incorrect.

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