Media fail to highlight HR issues in GSP+ talks

JEERS TO news outfits that focused entirely on the trade benefits of the European Union’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) without discussing issues involving human and labor rights, which are among the international conventions that must be complied with by recipients of these benefits.

The general media coverage, helped in no small measure by misleading statements from EU and Philippine officials, tended to suggest that the rollover was the direct result of an “improved” human rights situation in the Philippines when, in fact, the rollover came about because the EU failed to come up with new GSP+ regulations that it was supposed to craft and approve earlier in the year.

EU Ambassador to the Philippines, Luc Veron, confirmed on November 22 the four-year rollover for the country of the GSP+, a scheme that grants developing countries tariff-free access to their markets.

Reports published by ABS-CBN News, Philippine Daily Inquirer, and BusinessWorld have been limited to the rollover and the resumption of discussions for a free-trade agreement between the EU and the Philippines.

These reports neglected to mention or discuss the human rights conditions the Philippines must meet. Even the use of the word “extension” was problematic because an extension suggests the Philippines’ GSP+ compliance had been assessed and, because of good results, it needed to be extended. This was not the case, as even Veron himself used “rollover” to describe what happened.

The reports also hardly touched on the human rights violations that continue to occur – violations that human rights defenders have been calling on the EU even during the time of former President Rodrigo Duterte to address by using the GSP+ as leverage, to no avail. GSP+ beneficiaries must demonstrate effective implementation of 27 core international conventions on human rights and labor, among others.

The European Commission (EC) reported on November 21 the problems of some beneficiary countries in fulfilling HR obligations; prompting the EU to carefully monitor the implementation of GSP+. The commission cited challenges affecting “freedom of expression and civil society space, protection against domestic violence, as well as the fight against corruption and ensuring judicial independence.”

In the EC’s assessment of the Philippines from 2020-2022 issued on November 21, the institution concluded that the implementation of a health-based approach in the drug policy needs to be “strengthened.” In addition, deficiencies in law enforcement have to be “addressed and perpetrators brought to justice.” It also noted concerns about House Bill 7814 which would reinstate the death penalty for drug offenses. Lastly, the EC noted the need for better inter-agency coordination, corruption risk assessments, stronger regulation of public procurement, and clarification of the rules for “asset recovery.”

The EU Parliament already warned the Philippines in February 2022 that it would lose trade perks and market access if it did not act to address human rights abuses, particularly the extrajudicial killings under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. Unfortunately, this warning went unheeded by the EU as the GSP+ remained in force — and unchanged — even though thousands were already being killed and attacked across the country. The EU did, however, suspend negotiations with the Philippines on the free-trade agreement, reportedly as a reaction to the “drug war” violence, but it did not use the leverage of the GSP+. This prompted critics like Human Rights Watch to accuse the EU of “tolerating” the violence and the abuses.

CMFR cheers news accounts which included significant HR context.

BusinessWorld’s Kyle Aristophere Atienza cited human rights activists’ who criticized President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s failure to address cases of human rights abuses in the country. Atienza included in his report data from the Dahas Project of the University of the Philippines Third World Studies Center, which shows a total of 342 individuals killed in connection with illegal drugs. He also quoted Joseph Purugganan of iDefend and Trade Justice Pilipinas, who countered the official narrative that trade perks were extended because of a more favorable HR situation in the country. He said that the decision to roll over the scheme for four more years was because the “EU ran out of time to pass new GSP+ regulations.”

Ian Laqui of quoted in his report the statement of Human Rights Watch, an international non-government organization looking into state of human rights worldwide, which said the extension disregarded cases of abuses by former administrations, “Human Rights Watch believes serious abuses committed by some of the GSP beneficiaries, including the Philippines, despite the GSP’s human rights conditionality, highlight the need for a reform of the scheme to make it more transparent, predictable, and impactful.”

Previous CMFR monitors pointed out that the EU’s GSP+ is not just about preferential trade arrangements to help developing countries. It also serves as an instrument to compel countries like the Philippines to respect human and labor rights with tariff-free access to the EU market as an incentive. Hence, reporting the subject should involve analysis of human rights conditions. Otherwise, journalists end up merely recording government claims and official propaganda.