Thursday, January 16, 2014

European Union, the GSP and a 'serious and systematic violation' of human rights principles?

This post follows through from my article today in the New Age newspaper

Article 25 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights states:
Every citizen shall have the right ....
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
The UN Human Right Committee is the body established to monitor state's compliance with the covenant, and it produces General Statements which are rulings on legal interpretation of articles in the covenant. In 1996 it published such a statement on the meaning of Article 25. This states, inter alia, that the right to vote
‘lies at the core of a democratic government based on the consent of the people’ and that states must take steps to ensure that ‘citizens have an effective opportunity to enjoy’ it.

And that:
‘genuine periodic elections…. are essential to ensure the accountability of representatives for the exercise of the legislative or executive powers vested in them’
and are required to ensure that
‘the authority of government continues to be based on the free expression of the will of electors.’
Why is any of this significant? Sure, Bangladesh ratified the international covenant in 2000 (though it has failed to report to the committee) - but the state is in breach of numerous provisions and there has never been any comeback before.

The reason why it could be relevant is because of the European Union regulation 978/2012 relating to tax exemptions for imports into the EU.

This regulation sets out the legal basis for countries receiving what is known as GSP, so that they do not need to pay any tax on exports (except for those involving arms) into the European Union - a privilege of particular importance to the RMG sector.

Article 19 of the regulation sets out the circumstances in which temporary suspension can take place and this includes the 'serious and systematic violation of principles laid down in the conventions listed in Part A of Annex VIII'

Part A of Annex VIII includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which includes, as we have seen, Article 25 and the Right to Vote.

So, were the Bangladesh elections a serious and systematic violence of this article? Clearly the election, though perhaps technically compliant with the Representation of People's Order and constitutional requirement, it was far from being a 'genuine' election' and is not a 'free expression of the will of the electors' and has not brought about the 'accountability of representatives for the exercise of the legislative or executive powers vested in them' as they are supposed to.

In the elections held on January 5, boycotted by the opposition parties, citizens in 153 out of 300 constituencies had no opportunity to vote as there was only a single candidate standing.

In most of the other 147 seats, there was only a token contest between candidates who were from the same party or alliance, resulting in a low turnout in some constituencies as low as 10 per cent. About two-thirds of the cabinet comprise MPs who were elected unopposed. In addition, of course there was significant ballot stuffing to increase the turnout figures

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative, has herself issued a statement which said that lack of conditions for ‘transparent, inclusive and credible elections’ meant ‘that the people of Bangladesh were not given an opportunity to express fully their democratic choice.’

Arguably, the EU could find that the manner in which the election was held was a serious enough breach to fall within article 19 of the EU regulation.

Also relevant to the EU decision would be other rights contained in the regulation including , article 9 which states, ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.’

Twenty-five senior opposition leaders are now detained in jail and in December, jail figures suggest that more than 1,000 opposition supporters were detained in that month alone.

Any decision taken by the EU that there had been 'serious and systematic violation' of human right principles in Bangladesh would not result in the GSP being removed straightaway.

There would first of all be a 6 month period in which the European Commission would monitor the country, and then, if it was still decided to continue with the suspension and if the European Council of Ministers and Parliament concurred, a suspension would take place after 6 months.

The lever of EU tax exemption removal is a very significant one - and perhaps the only one the international community has that could be effective in pressing the government to hold new elections. As today's New Age article states:
In 2012, the Bangladeshi apparel industry exported clothing worth about 9.2 billion euros (Tk 2,039,10 crore) to the EU. 
If Bangladesh is suspended from receiving the Generalised System of Preferences, more commonly known as GSP, the exporters would have to pay around 14 per cent tax on these goods in the future. 
‘If one economic tool matters to this country, it is this one. Losing it would have a serious impact on Bangladesh’s economy,’ said Ahsan Mansur, the executive director of the Policy Research Institute, an economic think-tank.
The EU could tell the Bangladesh government that unless it held new elections under a system which the political parties agreed, it would initiate the process of withdrawing the GSP. If the government failed to take proper steps in the matter, then the EU could initiate the withdrawal procedure which would allow the government at least a six month gap in which to change its mind.

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