On the 5th November GHRD commenced its 2013 EU Lobby tour with a specialist conference at the European Parliament in Brussels, entitled 'The impact of Trade and Good Governance on Human Rights in Pakistan and Bangladesh'. This event featured esteemed human rights defenders and specialists in the field of human rights in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and was attended by representatives from a range of organizations and members of the public.
The conference was opened by Ranjeev Gowri, treasurer and member of the board, and introduced by the moderator, Dr Siegfried Woolf. Dr Woolf, Director of Research at the South Asia Democratic Forum, commenced the event with an introduction to the abuse of Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws and the impossible conditions it creates for religious minorities.
The first speaker, Mr. Rehman, senior journalist and Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, described Pakistan as still fighting a battle started in the fifties, stating that this is a critical point in governmental transition. Mr Rehman identified the country's deficit and the increasing number of people living below the poverty line as two related threats to the protection and promotion of human rights in Pakistan. He suggested a direct correlation between economic slowdown and military interference and suffering of minorities, remarking that the world was not hesitant to provide arms to Pakistan. He further stated that the democratic process is an ongoing one: extremism in the name of Islam is active, persecution of minorities is inherent, and it is difficult to maintain the functional relationship with India integral to the economic development of Pakistan.
Ms Sameena Imtiaz, the Founder and Executive Director of Peace Education and Development Foundation (PEAD), was the second speaker on Pakistan. Again Ms Imtiaz identified endemic problems beleaguering the country: massive illiteracy, corruption, near absence of rule of law. The themes of militancy and radicalization from Mr Rehman's speech reappeared, and Ms Imtiaz mentions that this is the first time for Pakistan to transition from one democratic government to another democratic government without military intervention. Despite this, she continued, religious minorities are discriminated against in both law and policy: Ahmadiyyas are unrepresented and not discussed, have limited freedom and by law cannot even claim themselves as Muslims.
The second half of the conference concentrated on Bangladesh, and featured the Head of Policy Advocacy and Communication from the Bandhu Social Welfare society; Mr Rahmat Ullah addressed various issues faced by sexual minorities and underlined the importance of government initiatives to promote good governance and protect vulnerable groups. He stated that Bangladesh has a critical view on LGBT rights due to its strong conservative values, reflected in government policies. These create a difficult environment for sexual minorities and prevent them from exercising their basic rights and fundamental freedoms. Mr Rahmat Ullah stressed the importance of enacting anti-discrimination law and promoting acceptance of sexual, religious and ethnic minorities. The Bangladeshi government recognized the existence of LGBT communities during the 16th session of the Universal Periodic Review (29th April, 2013), but has yet to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual activities.
When attendees asked about the instability surrounding the upcoming elections in Bangladesh and the effect on minorities, Mr. Rahmat Ullah responded that civil society should raise the concerns of minorities with the media and political leaders, calling civil society to work closely with the government to cultivate an inclusive and equal society. He acknowledged the EU's role in ensuring fundamental rights for minorities and welcomed the engagement of the international community with the Bangladeshi government to protect minority rights.
Commenting on the EU's role Thijs Berman, Dutch Politician and Member of the European Parliament, stated that the EU has its own program in cooperation with Bangladesh. He echoed earlier sentiments that women and religious and sexual minorities face many challenges, later acknowledging that some of these issues are shared within the EU, citing the lack of acceptance of LGBT people in rural areas of The Netherlands. Mr Berman explained that "silent diplomacy" has been the approach of the EU and has been effective, but that he would like a more vocal policy to "give voice to the voiceless".
The role of the EU in Pakistan's development has become increasingly scrutinized and topical as the question of Pakistan being granted 'the special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance' (frequently referred to as GSP Plus) looms. The European Parliament will vote to decide the issue next month, and given these developments the plenary discussion session turned to whether there is tangible evidence that GSP Plus actually improves a country's situation. Mr Berman established that he does not support Pakistan achieving GSP Plus status as the country has not ratified the most important treaties. Once GSP Plus is granted, he said, leverage decreases as it is exceptional to suspend a trade treaty once it is granted.
The conference underscored the importance of economic strength and progressive social attitudes in the pursuit of a sound respect of human rights. The role of civil society was repeatedly identified as invaluable to this aim, in addition to a more vocal approach from bodies like the European Union. The discussion of Pakistan was often critical of the Government, whilst suggesting that other countries had also contributed to the country's problems. The challenges facing Bangladesh were identified as political instability, human rights violations against religious and sexual minorities, and pervasive social stigma. GHRD is now planning follow up actions with MEPs who specialize in the areas of trade relations and human rights.