EU must use GSP+ to end death penalty in Pakistan

Through the GSP+ programme, EU can reaffirm its commitment to abolishing the death penalty worldwide, says Barbara Matera.

Barbara Matera | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Barbara Matera

05 Jun 2018

Do some deserve to die for their crimes? Does capital punishment deter violent crime? 

The European Union has evaluated the relevant scientific and philosophical arguments and come to a resounding conclusion: No. 

The EU’s official position on the death penalty is an ethical one. The Commission website states that “capital punishment is inhumane, degrading and unnecessary.” It does not deter crime and is not an effective means of protecting citizens. As a result, universal abolition of the death penalty is a key priority of EU external policy. 


This position stands in contrast with European trade policy, especially evident in the trade benefit programme GSP+ (generalised scheme of preferences plus). 

Although none of the ‘core conventions’ required for GSP+ specifically prohibit the death penalty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), says in Article 6(2) that in “countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.” The convention goes on to prohibit the execution of minors and pregnant women. 

Furthermore, GSP+ is somewhat of a unique trade programme, in that it emphasises trade as a mechanism for incentivising the improvement of human rights in beneficiary countries. 

Pakistan is not complying with the ICCPR. In 2014, the Pakistani government lifted a seven-year moratorium on the death penalty, as a response to the brutal Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar which left 141 dead. In that time, thousands of Pakistanis have been placed on death row (although official statistics are difficult to acquire, due to government resistance in releasing figures). 

While China and North Korea are often considered to be some of the world’s top executioners, Pakistan is believed to have the largest number of people sitting on death row. Amnesty International claims that as of June 2015, at least 8500 people were awaiting execution, some of whom have been in jail for decades.

The Pakistani government claims its application of the death penalty is a counter-terrorism measure. However, only 49 out of 389 convictions in 2016 were originally tried in the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs). Evidence shows that as many as 90 per cent of detainees have no conclusive links to terrorism. 

In addition, the death penalty is disproportionately levied against religious and ethnic minorities, like Asia Bibi, a Christian woman facing the death penalty over accusations of insults towards the Prophet Muhammad. 

In Pakistan, 28 crimes carry the death sentence, including blasphemy, giving false witness and adultery. These crimes do not fit the category of the “most serious crimes,” and are thus a violation of the ICCPR. 

There have also been cases of minors being sentenced to death. Shafqat Hussain, for example, who was convicted of murder, was hanged despite the fact that he was 14 years old at the time of the alleged crime. 

GSP+, as one of the only EU trade policies dedicated to improving human rights, must be used to its full extent. To date, all of the other GSP+ beneficiary countries have prohibited by law the use of the death penalty (although human rights groups assert it continues in secret in the Philippines and Mongolia). Why isn’t Pakistan held to the same regard? 

The EU is in a strong position to negotiate firmly with the Pakistani government. Through the GSP+ mechanism, and as one of Pakistan’s largest trading partners, the EU can reaffirm its dedication to the universal abolition of the death penalty.


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