TRADE Secretary Ramon Lopez raised a very good point last week – and then subsequently stomped it into diffident meaninglessness, which I’ll get to in a moment – when he explained that the reintroduction of the death penalty may threaten the Philippines’ eligibility for the European Union’s Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) tariff exemption system. It’s a valid point because the country has already agreed under various international conventions not to bring back capital punishment.
The GSP+ program is an extension of the GSP program, which was designed to give a boost to developing economies by offering tariff-free export to the EU on some products, and reduced tariffs on others.
Under that program, the Philippines could export 2,442 products to the EU at zero tariff and enjoyed reduced rates on 3,767 others. Graduating to GSP+ status in December 2014 made all 6,209 of those products duty-free for the Philippines, and added 65 others, for a total of 6,274.
The tariff exemption benefits had an immediate impact on Philippine trade with the EU. In the first half of 2015, Philippine exports to the EU jumped by 27 percent year-on-year from 584 million euros in the first six months of 2014 to 743 million euros in the same period in 2015.
In order to gain eligibility for GSP+, the Philippines had to agree to ratify and implement 27 different international treaties and conventions on human rights, labor rights, environment and governance, a process that actually began several years prior to EU approval in December 2014.
There is not a convention or treaty that specifically bans the use of the death penalty in the basket of documents the EU uses to assess GSP+ eligibility, but is linked with several addressing human rights and democracy—for example, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Secretary Lopez has every reason to be concerned that the preferential status of the Philippines is under threat, because there are precedents for suspending the country’s eligibility: Several years ago, Sri Lanka was ejected from the program for human rights violations in the aftermath of that country’s long civil war, and in late 2015, Pakistan was warned that if it did not “reconsider” its restoration of the death penalty—which it has imposed with enthusiasm since 2014, executing at least 389 prisoners—that it would most likely lose its GSP+ eligibility this year. Given the already widespread skepticism about President Rodrigo Duterte’s commitment to human rights issues, it is a near certainty that the Philippines would soon follow, perhaps later this year or in early 2018.
The biggest beneficiaries of GSP+ eligibility over the past two years have been the country’s small and medium enterprises, since by design the absence of tariffs favors smaller volumes of goods. So naturally, losing the tariff-free advantage is going to hurt the country’s small businesses the most, something that would be contrary to what the current government has said are its broader socioeconomic aspirations.
Having drawn the country’s attention to a practical economic consideration with broad implications as a reason not to reintroduce the death penalty, however, Lopez completely abdicated his job to promote and support Philippine trade by saying, “I would go with what is good for the country. In other words, if to maintain peace and order and improve security conditions in our country, if bringing back the death penalty is the solution, I would go with it.” Lopez then said he would discuss the issue with the EU “to seek flexibility” for the Philippine government to ignore commitments that prevent it from imposing the death penalty.
That is futile; having established a precedent by holding other countries to account, the EU can hardly make an exception for such an unexceptional country like the Philippines, if it wishes to maintain certain standards in commerce with the rest of the world.
Study after study, beginning with a United Nations review way back in 1968 that concluded, “It is generally agreed that the data which now exist show no correlation between the existence of capital punishment and lower rates of capital crime,” (for those interested in reading it, the study was entitled Capital Punishment, and is available through the UN’s online archives) has found that the death penalty does virtually nothing to “maintain peace and order and improve security conditions,” and now, a clear risk of an economic penalty has been revealed.
It is unfortunate that the country’s trading enterprises have to rely for government support of their sector on someone who, at their expense, feels ignoring all that and being a good soldier in supporting the barbaric and wrong-headed policy of his boss is the proper course of action.