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Pakistan

Foreign Minister addresses the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET)

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Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi addressed the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) of the European Parliament (EP) at the invitation of its Chair MEP David McAllister, on May 26. The Foreign Minister was joined by Ms. Zartaj Gul, Minister of State for Climate Change; Mr. Mian Farrukh Habib, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting; Malik Ehsan Ullah Tiwana, Chairman National Assembly Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs; Ms. Andleeb Abbas, Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs; Ms. Maleeka Bokhari, Parliamentary Secretary for Law and Justice; Mr. Lal Chand Malhi, Parliamentary Secretary for Human Rights; Foreign Secretary and senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Minister’s address was followed by an exchange of views with the Members of European Parliament (MEPs) belonging to different political groups.

The Foreign Minister thanked the Chair and the members of AFET for inviting him to address the prestigious Committee of the EU Parliament. He underscored the importance of regular parliamentary exchanges between Pakistan and the EU.

In his remarks, Foreign Minister Qureshi dilated upon various aspects of Pakistan-EU relations and regional and international developments. He stated that the Pakistan-EU Strategic Engagement Plan (SEP) had ushered in a new phase in the partnership by providing a solid foundation and framework for multidimensional cooperation between the two sides.

Highlighting the enormous potential in further expanding Pakistan-EU ties in diverse spheres, he conveyed Pakistan’s readiness to continue to work for a productive and constructive partnership.
Underscoring the importance of trade and economic cooperation, Foreign Minister Qureshi underscored that the EU’s GSP Plus facility to Pakistan had been mutually beneficial and played an important role in growth of trade between the two sides. He reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment towards effective implementation of GSP Plus related international Conventions. He also appreciated EU’s support to Pakistan in the fight against COVID-19 Pandemic.

Expressing disappointment at the adoption of a resolution by the European Parliament on blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Foreign Minister Qureshi emphasised the importance of understanding the special feelings and reverence Muslims have for the personality of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Freedom of expression could not be used to hurt religious feelings of others and willful provocation and incitement to hatred and violence must be universally outlawed. The Foreign Minister stressed that xenophobia and Islamophobia were on the rise and Pakistan and the EU should work together for peaceful coexistence, and interfaith and cultural harmony.

Foreign Minister Qureshi underscored that peace and stability in Afghanistan are paramount for realizing Pakistan’s vision of regional economic integration. Pakistan wishes to see an end to the Afghan conflict through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned negotiated political settlement. Pakistan has played and continues to play a key role in facilitating the Afghan peace process. The current peace process is a historic opportunity and all Afghan parties should work constructively to secure an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive solution.

Foreign Minister Qureshi maintained that the Jammu and Kashmir dispute remains the single biggest obstacle in the way of building durable and lasting peace in South Asia. Instead of responding positively to Pakistan’s overtures for peace, India unilaterally and illegally moved to change the status of IIOJK, which is a UN recognised disputed territory, and vitiated the environment. The onus was on India to create an enabling environment. Pakistan remains committed to the peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions and wishes of the Kashmiri people. Highlighting India’s disinformation campaign against Pakistan as unveiled by the EU Disinfolab, the Foreign Minister urged the EU not to allow the names of its institutions to be misused by third countries.

The Chair of AFET, MEP David McAllister, in his remarks highlighted the importance of Pakistan-EU relations and the Parliament’s interest in further strengthening this partnership. He thanked the Foreign Minister for his detailed exchange of views with AFET Committee.

Members of the AFET Committee and heads of delegations for relations with third countries and regions participated in the session. The 71 member AFET Committee is one of the most prominent and influential Committees of the European Parliament. It oversees and provides guidance to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and plays an important role in matters related to human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as finalisation of EU’s international agreements.

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Pakistan

Conference told Pakistan blasphemy laws 'equated to ethnic cleansing'

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A conference on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws was told that the legislation has been equated to ethnic cleansing. The blasphemy laws, while purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority of Pakistan, are "vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and the judiciary". As such they permit, even invite, abuse and the harassment and persecution of minorities in Pakistan, the event at Brussels press club was told.

But, despite such concerns, the European Union is "failing to help” victims and pressure must be put on Pakistan to repeal its laws. The conference on Pakistan’s highly controversial and widely condemned blasphemy laws, took place under the auspices of the Alliance internationale pour la défense des droits et des libertés.

The legal basis of the blasphemy law, the use of the laws to justify ethnic cleansing and the particular effects on females were all discussed. Opening the debate, Paulo Casada, a former MEP, founder and executive director of the South Asia Democratic Forum, said: “This is a very important topic and one we have been dealing with for a long time. People are being accused of blasphemy without any foundation at all. This results from attacks on lawyers and the quite fanatical and absurd atmosphere in the country.

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“The EU needs to do more to highlight this issue which has got worse, not better.”

Jürgen Klute, former MEP and a Christian theologian, said: “I think Christianity and Islam have a lot in common: the belief that you have to appear in front of divine judgement at the end of your time so we must strongly argue against these blasphemy laws. How can a human being decide or estimate what a blasphemy is? You have to leave such decisions to your God. We can argue against these laws on human rights grounds and also religious grounds.”

Manel Msalmi, international affairs Advisor of MEPs of the European Peoples’ Party in the European Parliament, said: “The parliament and significantly the commission and council have each condemned persecution in Pakistan.Hundreds have been charged under these laws which seek to limit speech which could be seen as offensive. These laws have always been a problem but the situation has got worse. It is important to note that such laws are being used against religious minorities in states like Pakistan. Such attacks are also common online particularly against journalists. Pakistan has even called for the introduction of such laws in other Muslim countries with a boycott of states where blasphemy happens. This practice goes hand in hand with targeting religious groups. Human rights are being abused in Pakistan.”

Another keynote speaker, Willy Fautré, director, Human Rights Without Frontiers, thanked the organizers for highlighting the issue. He focused be on the case of a Christian couple imprisoned since 2013 on blasphemy charges before being declared innocent by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and released a few months ago. Despite a resolution of the European Parliament in April focusing on their case, no EU country is ready to grant them political asylum.

He said that in the HRWF database of FORB prisoners, “we have documented 47 cases of believers of all faiths in Pakistan who are in jail on the basis of the blasphemy laws.” These include 26 Christians, 15 Sunni Muslims, 5 Ahmadis and 1 Shia Muslim. Fautre added: “There are certainly more.”

Some 16 have been sentenced to death, 16 have been sentenced to life imprisonment, 10 have been in prison for years and are still waiting for trial and in four cases the status of the prisoner is unknown. The case of Asia Bibi who was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 and was finally acquitted for lack of evidence by the Supreme Court of Pakistan after spending many years on the death row is well known. When she was released, she went into hiding to avoid being killed by extremist groups.

She tried to apply for asylum in France and to other EU member states but to no avail. She was finally welcome in Canada. Fautre said: “I would like here to focus on this point."

On 29 April 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on blasphemy laws in Pakistan, in particular the case of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, saying in its very first point:“Whereas Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, a Christian couple, were imprisoned in 2013 and sentenced to death in 2014 for blasphemy; whereas they have been accused of sending “blasphemous” text messages to a mosque cleric insulting the Prophet Muhammad, using a sim card registered in Shagufta’s name; whereas both the accused have consistently denied all allegations and believe that her National identity card was purposely misused.”

The European Parliament said it “strongly condemns the imprisonment and sentencing of Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, as well as the continued delay of their appeal hearing; calls on the Pakistani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release them, and to provide them and their lawyer adequate security now and upon release; calls on the Lahore High Court to hold the appeal hearing without delay and to strike down the verdict in accordance with human rights”.

Some 681 MEPs voted in favour of the resolution and only three MEPs opposed it. Fautre added: “The Christian couple was finally released after spending 8 years in prison. They live in hiding for their security.They would now like to find a safe haven in an EU member state but they have not received any proposal from them and their applications for a visa through various European embassies have mostly remained unanswered or have been turned down because they are in hiding for their safety, they have no job and no proof of income. The diplomatic missions have not proposed them an alternative process to get aslum.”

He told the conference: “Up to now, Germany was the only embassy to officially answer Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel but they said they could not be of any assistance. This possibility is narrowly limited to exceptional cases that are of particular exemplary political significance, for example, persons who have been active in human rights or opposition work in a particularly outstanding and long-standing manner and are thus directly exposed to a massive threat to their physical integrity and can sustainably avoid such a threat solely by being admitted to Germany.

“The only way to ask for political asylum would be to illegally cross several borders and arrive in an EU country where they could apply for asylum. They do not envisage such a dangerous solution.

“Again, in this case, EU member states are failing to concretely help persecuted Christians looking for a safe haven and turn a deaf ear to their requests. They are neither proactive nor reactive. Their obstacle race which started in 2013 in Pakistan is far from over.

“General Pervez Musharraf succeeded Zia with the support of the US and its allies. Musharraf not only failed to bring change in the country’s blasphemy laws, he also allowed extremist groups to continue working under new names.”

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Pakistan

Fintech revolution at Pakistan’s doorstep

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The silver lining that came with the coronavirus pandemic was the rapid move towards digitalization in different sectors of the economy that had previously been moving at a tortoise pace. Financial inclusion of the rural areas is, in particular, crucial for a faster pace of economic growth that the country needs to develop, and the Fintech revolution is offering opportunities to bring in many of these previously unbanked people, reports Global Village Space.

Pakistan’s fintech revolution: Sounds cool but do you understand what it means?

In essence, it refers to technology supporting banking and financial services. Ok, well, that’s a start! But what’s new about this – don’t we all know tellers have computers that they tap into when we deposit or take out cash from the bank.

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At its simplest, it may have meant that, but in essence, the fintech we are referring to more correctly refers to all technology that helps you conduct your banking needs generally without the assistance of a person. So it could be as simple as checking your balance or transferring your funds in your telephone app.

What does it mean for Pakistanis?

Huge Deal. Seventy-seven percent of the country is still physically unbanked and not financially included due to several reasons, including that bank branches cannot cover every part of the country; at 10 branches per 100,000 adults, Pakistan’s banking coverage is shallow as compared to the average of 16.38 in Asia.

That means that a large number of people do not have access to finance, and all that comes with it including, agricultural loans, tractor loans, machinery loans, car loans, mortgages, farmers insurance, and SME development is hindered by a lack of access to capital and so on.

This prevents individuals from engaging in economic activities that could change their lives and overall inhibits economic growth. According to the Access to Finance Survey, the country is still predominantly cash-based.

Only 23% of the adult population of Pakistan has access to formal financial services, and even less, only 16% of adult Pakistanis have a bank account. The Black Swan event known as COVID-19 rapidly transformed countries like Pakistan into the digital twenty-first century in the financial sector.

Banks that were plodding along and been talking about digital wallets, branchless banking were pushed into immediate action as they encouraged consumers to ‘stay safe and stay home’ and use their internet banking services; it acted as an extraordinary catalyst for digitization and e-commerce.

PTI government has launched a “Digital Pakistan initiative” covering all sectors, including agriculture, health care, education, trade, commerce, government services, and financial services.

Huge money that was spent under the Ehsaas program was sent as digital payments, and the government used this (government to person payments (G2P)) as an opportunity to get the previously unbanked populations into the financial sector.

Pakistan’s digitization did a logarithmic acceleration, as digital solutions became necessary, especially during the lockdown. The State Bank of Pakistan is also driving through faster change with the availability of instant payments through their Raast system.

Fintech has impacted many fields like Banking, Insurance, Loans, Personal Finance, Electric Payments, Loans, Venture Capital, and Wealth Management, to name a few. Many new startups have started in the field and have taken on established players head-on, often creating a competitive environment that benefits consumers.

According to MarketScreener, the global financial sector is expected to be worth $26.5 trillion in 2022, and the Fintech industry is worth around 1 percent of the industry.

According to a Goldman Sachs study, it was estimated that the global fintech industry might eventually disrupt up to $4.7trn of revenue from brick-and-mortar financial services. PwC estimated in 2020 that up to 28% of banking and payment services would be at risk of disruption due to new business models brought about by fintech.

Fintech in Pakistan

According to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, a whopping 101 million people use the internet in Pakistan, 46% has access to broadband services and 85% of Pakistan’s population has mobile connections that account to 183 million mobile subscriptions, a high penetration in the population.

Pakistan offers immense business opportunities in the payments sector for banks and other fintech entities, including startups and telcos, to capitalize on the high mobile penetration in the country by offering financial services through mobile devices, apps, and web services.

An electronic wallet could be used for various payment transactions such as receiving payments including remittances, wages, and paying bills along with phone top-ups. According to McKinsey Consulting, the cost of offering customers digital accounts can be 80-90 percent lower than using physical branches.

Neobanks hit the country several years ago once the telecom giants realized they could enter this industry and challenge the traditional banks. Neobanks are basically internet-based banks that are virtual banks that operate exclusively online without traditional physical branch networks and any of the costs attached with this.

According to a 2019 World Bank report, Pakistan’s Digital Financial Services will see a boom reaching $36 billion, contributing 7% to the GDP if a real-time retail payments gateway is introduced.

Currently, branchless banking, even with the telecom companies, has not made a big jump; as of March 2021, the average daily transactions remain around 6,604,143, and the total number of transactions during the quarter were only 594 million, with the value of transactions around Rs. 1.8 trillion.

Who will serve the unserved?

According to a 2016 World Bank report, 27.5 million Pakistani adults say that distance to a financial institution is a significant barrier to accessing financial services. The arrival of branchless banking providers into the market has added around 180,000 active agents since 2008 to the existing 100,000 bank branches, but this only slightly helps with the scarcity of financial touchpoints for the populace.

Moreover, a Karandaz report shows that banks still offer 80 percent of the existing financial services whilst serving only 15 percent of the population. Increasingly, in markets where this shortage of financial service providers exists, we see startups entering to provide this need for faster, efficient, no-frills attached payment services, especially amongst small and medium-sized businesses and unbanked individuals.

Since the introduction of Electronic Money Institute (EMI) regulations by the SBP in April 2019, several Pakistan-based startups have approached the SBP for approval— including Finja, Nayapay, Sadapay, and AFT— all are at different stages of approval from obtaining a pilot approval to an in-principle approval from the SBP.

More fintech startups and other companies are preparing to acquire EMI licenses to unlock the potential of digital financial services. The EMI license only allows fintechs to provide customers with an account with daily and monthly transactional limits.

They are not allowed to deliver any lending or savings products; companies that wish to also do that have to opt for branchless banking or apply for non-banking financial institution (NBFI) at the Securities and Exchange Commission of [1]Pakistan (SECP).

Finja recently became the first fintech to obtain both regulatory licenses: an EMI license under the ambit of the SBP and a lending license for an NBFC (non-bank financial company) under the SECP. Not all fintechs are looking to compete with banks.

Finja, for example, is building partnerships with banks by collaborating with them and creating lending and payment products to serve a segment they may not have targeted earlier.

Recently, HBL invested $1.15m into Finja, stating that this would proactively reinvent the bank to become a “technology company with a banking license”. The bank noted that investment in Finja would serve two of the bank’s strategic priorities, namely, making investments into digital financial inclusion and in development finance companies involved in agriculture and SMEs.

Since April 2020, Finja has increased its digital lending portfolio by 550%, disbursing out over 50,000 digital loans to micro, small, and medium enterprises. There is no doubt that the SBP is keen to ensure that fintech companies help in its goal of increasing financial inclusion through new and often innovative digital payments frameworks.

The 2019 regulations provide a clear framework for EMIs looking to service the public and stipulate minimum service standards and requirements for these companies to ensure that payment services are given to consumers robustly and cost-effectively and provide a baseline for customer protection.

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Afghanistan

Imran Khan: Pakistan is ready to be a partner for peace in Afghanistan, but we will not host US bases

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Pakistan is ready to be a partner for peace in Afghanistan with the United States — but as US troops withdraw, we will avoid risking further conflict, writes Imran Khan.

Our countries have the same interest in that long-suffering country: a political settlement, stability, economic development and the denial of any haven for terrorists. We oppose any military takeover of Afghanistan, which will lead only to decades of civil war, as the Taliban cannot win over the whole of the country, and yet must be included in any government for it to succeed.

In the past, Pakistan made a mistake by choosing between warring Afghan parties, but we have learned from that experience. We have no favorites and will work with any government that enjoys the confidence of the Afghan people. History proves that Afghanistan can never be controlled from the outside.

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Our country has suffered so much from the wars in Afghanistan. More than 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed. While the United States provided $20 billion in aid, losses to the Pakistani economy have exceeded $150bn. Tourism and investment dried up. After joining the US effort, Pakistan was targeted as a collaborator, leading to terrorism against our country from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other groups. US drone attacks, which I warned against, didn’t win the war, but they did create hatred for Americans, swelling the ranks of terrorist groups against both our countries.

While I argued for years that there was no military solution in Afghanistan, the United States pressured Pakistan for the very first time to send our troops into the semiautonomous tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, in the false expectation that it would end the insurgency. It didn’t, but it did internally displace half the population of the tribal areas, 1 million people in North Waziristan alone, with billions of dollars of damage done and whole villages destroyed. The “collateral” damage to civilians in that incursion led to suicide attacks against the Pakistani army, killing many more soldiers than the United States lost in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, while breeding even more terrorism against us. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone, 500 Pakistani policemen were murdered.

There are more than 3 million Afghan refugees in our country — if there is further civil war, instead of a political settlement, there will be many more refugees, destabilizing and further impoverishing the frontier areas on our border. Most of the Taliban are from the Pashtun ethnic group — and more than half the Pashtuns live on our side of the border. We are even now fencing this historically open border almost completely.

If Pakistan were to agree to host US bases, from which to bomb Afghanistan, and an Afghan civil war ensued, Pakistan would be targeted for revenge by terrorists again. We simply cannot afford this. We have already paid too heavy a price. Meanwhile, if the United States, with the most powerful military machine in history, couldn’t win the war from inside Afghanistan after 20 years, how would America do it from bases in our country?

The interests of Pakistan and the United States in Afghanistan are the same. We want a negotiated peace, not civil war. We need stability and an end to terrorism aimed at both our countries. We support an agreement that preserves the development gains made in Afghanistan in the past two decades. And we want economic development, and increased trade and connectivity in Central Asia, to lift our economy. We will all go down the drain if there is further civil war.

This is why we have done a lot of real diplomatic heavy lifting to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, first with the Americans, and then with the Afghan government. We know that if the Taliban tries to declare a military victory, it will lead to endless bloodshed. We hope the Afghan government will also show more flexibility in the talks, and stop blaming Pakistan, as we are doing everything we can short of military action.

This is also why we were part of the recent Extended Troika” joint statements, along with Russia, China and the United States, unambiguously declaring that any effort to impose a government by force in Kabul would be opposed by us all, and also would deprive Afghanistan access to the foreign assistance it will need.

These joint statements mark the first time four of Afghanistan’s neighbors and partners have spoken with one voice on what a political settlement should look like. This could also lead to a new regional compact for peace and development in the region, which could include a requirement to share intelligence and work with the Afghan government to counter emergent terrorist threats. Afghanistan’s neighbors would pledge not to allow their territory to be used against Afghanistan or any other country, and Afghanistan would pledge the same. The compact could also lead to a commitment to help Afghans rebuild their country

I believe that promoting economic connectivity and regional trade is the key to lasting peace and security in Afghanistan. Further military action is futile. If we share this responsibility, Afghanistan, once synonymous with the “Great Game” and regional rivalries, could instead emerge as a model of regional co-operation.

Imran Khan is the prime minister of Pakistan. First published in The Washington Post.

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