The Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia have all been criticised for a wide array of violations of international conventions. Reports on issues including unequal access to education, human trafficking, work place discrimination, and the discrimination and abuse of women and girls are regularly being published and brought to the attention of European Commissioners. The situation in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is even worse. Several countries and numerous international human rights NGOs have severely criticised Pakistan for its ongoing human rights abuses, state sponsored terrorism and terrorism financing. However, despite mounting evidence and reports on the discrimination and abuse being experienced in these countries, they all remain beneficiaries of Europe’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+).
The GSP+ was originally designed as a trade subsidy program intended to “help developing countries assume [and implement] the special burdens and responsibilities” of the 27 core international conventions on “human and labour rights, environmental protection and good governance”. It was established to prevent human rights abuses which continue to discriminate and abuse individuals living in countries benefiting from the trade preference scheme. Currently, Armenia, Bolivia, Cabo Verde, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, are all beneficiaries of the GSP+ program. However, the modern iteration of GSP+ has strayed far from the ideal. The GSP+ has increasingly become a tariff free import benefit given to third countries despite recipients showing a clear disregard for core human rights conventions. These ongoing abuses of workers, women, journalists, religious minorities and those defending their rights in their country are, in effect, being supported by the citizens of the EU. European tax payers are being manipulated into believing they are accessing cheap, ethical produced products. In fact, what they are doing is feeding into a system of ongoing exploitation and persecution in countries that continue to benefit from GSP+ by not paying tariffs, while not applying labour rights and human rights conventions.
Pakistan, for example, has been a beneficiary of the GSP+ for over five years now. Reports issued by external bodies, such as the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and Human Rights Watch, have criticised the Pakistani government for ongoing, systemic, abuse and discrimination of low-income communities, women and children. This evidence cannot be reconciled with the fact that acceptance into this program is dependent on the implementation of core conventions which prohibit such grim treatment of individuals. Despite Pakistan’s failure to fully comply with the criteria, representatives from the Commission have consistently refused to give any indication that Pakistan may be withdrawn from the program.
The violation of international protocols, especially for formally signed and ratified conventions, remains the responsibility of the United Nations (UN) and organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO). That is unless they are specifically written into the guidelines and criteria of specific partnership agreements, as is the case with Europe’s GSP+ where the European Commission has the responsibility of monitoring and evaluation. However, in the case of GSP+ the Commission is currently failing to fulfil its responsibility.
Findings from the Commission’s monitoring efforts are summarised in a ‘scorecard’. However, the contents of the scorecards have, so far, remained confidential. Every two years the Commission also submits a report on the status of each beneficiary’s implementation of the GSP+ conventions to the Parliament and the Council. However, the Commission needs to have a clearly defined system of monitoring in place, and a mechanism to facilitate dialogue between the government and those on the ground for a transparent evidence base. By including civil society watchdogs more intensely in the process, the blatant human rights abuses being carried out in some of the beneficiary countries would no longer be so easily brushed aside in preference of economic gains.
Civil society plays a significant role in the monitoring and reporting on the implementation of, and adherence to, the GSP+ conventions, while also serving an essential role in motivating governments to improve their implementation. The secrecy maintained around the scheme’s monitoring results, especially the ’scorecard’ system, limits how much these organisations can contribute towards improved compliance. A consortium of international NGOs, The GSP Platform, has proposed the creation of “roadmaps” alongside ‘scorecards’ as well as a complaint mechanism that would allow civil society organisations from specific regions to raise concerns and have a dialogue with local governments. The Mid-Term Review of the GSP+ proposed the publication of dialogue agendas in advance of meetings between the EU and beneficiary governments, as well as summary reports to be published after the meetings. Any of these recommendations, if enacted, would significantly improve the transparency of the GSP+ and enhance coordination between the numerous actors involved.
Trade schemes and trade negotiations need a transparent exchange. Trade is an enabler, designed to lift people out of poverty, provide better socio-economic conditions and promote the effective implementation of human rights, labour rights and international conventions protecting people and the planet. There is a need for clearly defined measures of progress, if we are to accept that indications of improvement are the new standard, imposed on the ‘scorecard’ system. This precision could help ensure that only instances of effective implementation are categorised as such and ensure that those benefiting from the GSP+ program are sincerely striving to implement the 27 core conventions with actions and not empty talk and token actions for the benefit of pleasing the European Commission.