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PAKISTAN: MEPs visit in Islamabad: Interview of MEP Tomáš Zdechovsky

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BRUSSELS/ISLAMABAD – On 10 February 2021, MEP Peter Van Dalen, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and co-chair of the Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief addressed a written question to Josep Borrell about the privileged GSP+ status granted to Pakistan and still in force despite its egregious human rights violations.

On 29 April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to express its deep concern about the overuse of blasphemy laws and the security of religious minorities in Pakistan.

In the last few months, a number of NGOs in Brussels have organized events to share their concerns about serious violations of human rights in Pakistan: the abuse of the blasphemy laws,  the non-prosecution of perpetrators of false statements of blasphemy, the non-respect of the presumption of innocence in case of blasphemy charges and the abuse of the pretrial detention, the lack of security for religious and ethnic minorities, the kidnappings of Christian girls and forced conversions and the death penalty.

On 3-4 November, the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with South Asia paid an official visit to Islamabad. The European delegation was comprised of the Chair Mr. Nicola PROCACCINI (Italy, ECR), Ms. Heidi HAUTALA (Finland, Greens, Vice-President of the European Parliament), Mr. Luis GARICANO (Spain, Renew), and Mr. Tomáš ZDECHOVSKÝ (Czechia, EPP).

Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) interviewed Mr. Tomáš ZDECHOVSKÝ about his visit to Pakistan:

HRWF: From your discussions with a wide range of Pakistani authorities, do you feel that there is a genuine political will to fight against a number of violations of human rights concerning the blasphemy laws, the security of religious and ethnic minorities, the kidnappings of Christian girls and forced conversions, the forced conversions of minors or the death penalty.

MEP Tomas Zdechovsky: The problems come from the extremists of radical Islam. This is a powerful group that unfortunately still has significant influence and puts pressure on institutions, especially the courts, to impose the harshest possible penalties for accusations of blasphemy.

The truth is, however, that the current government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken some partial steps to improve religious freedom and is making efforts to improve the position of minority groups. The good news is, for example, the success in the world-famous case of a Christian woman called Asia Bibi. She was originally sentenced to death but eventually, her release was secured. She and her family were allowed to travel to Canada.

Following her release, an inter-ministerial committee on religious tolerance was also set up. It is precisely on the issue of the position of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistani society that I see huge space for improvement.

HRWF: What is the state of play of the parliamentary work in Pakistan to improve the legislation on some of these issues? What are the obstacles? Who is opposed to such progress in the Pakistani parliament?

MEP Tomas Zdechovsky: As I indicated in my previous reply, the current ruling political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) has taken some partial steps to improve the status of religious minorities and the overall human rights situation in the country. These efforts are also facing opposition at the parliamentary level from radical Islamists. In the Pakistani Parliament, this is particularly the case with the relatively small Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, notorious for, among other things, trying to prevent the release of the aforementioned Christian woman named Asia Bibi.

HRWF: Mob violence against religious minorities is a real source of concern. Have this issue and the extremism issue been discussed during your meetings? What is your assessment of the situation?

MEP Tomas Zdechovsky: Yes, the issue of violence against religious minorities was also discussed during our mission. I will continue to support all efforts in areas where more concrete action is needed, such as human rights – in particular, blasphemy laws and the rights of religious minorities. The persecution of Christians in Pakistan is an issue I have been dealing with for a long time.

HRWF: After this visit to Pakistan, what will you propose to your political group concerning the GSP+ status of Pakistan?


MEP Tomas Zdechovsky: First of all, it should be remembered that Pakistan is one of the important players in the international arena that certainly cannot be ignored.  The EU wishes to remain a reliable partner for Pakistan, not only in the economic sphere. At the same time, however, it expects that this will not be done without the adoption of conventions addressing the conditions of children, workers, and minorities, which is a necessary condition for inclusion in the GSP+ system allowing easier access to the European market.

Pakistan, too, is well aware of the importance of relations with the EU and has shown its willingness to take steps to improve these matters. During the visit, we were informed, among other things, that Pakistan has committed itself to the six conventions that are linked to the GSP+ system, which I obviously welcome. If Pakistan continues its efforts, it certainly deserves support for the continuation of GSP+. The European Commission already has a proposal on the table for a GSP+ conference after 2023.

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Willy Fautre

Willy Fautré, former chargé de mission at the Cabinet of the Belgian Ministry of Education and at the Belgian Parliament. He is the director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, an NGO based in Brussels that he founded in 1988. His organization defends human rights in general but also the rights of persons belonging to historical religions, non-traditional, and new religious movements. It is apolitical and independent from any religion. He has carried out fact-finding missions on human rights and religious freedom in more than 25 countries He is a lecturer in universities in the field of religious freedom and human rights. He has published many articles in university journals about relations between states and religions. He organizes conferences at the European Parliament, including on freedom of religion or belief in China. For years, he has developed religious freedom advocacy in European institutions, at the OSCE, and at the UN.

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