TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Dec17/28)
14 December 2017
Third World Network

"Pink washing" WTO with draft women's declaration?
Published in SUNS #8596 dated 14 December 2017

Buenos Aires, 13 Dec (Roberto Bissio) - A non-binding declaration on Women and Trade signed by 118 countries was made public Tuesday during a press conference at the Hilton Hotel, where the 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is taking place.

Though released as a "Joint Declaration", with much fanfare at the press conference, it was denounced by many women's movements (including grassroots ones) around the world.

And, it remains a draft, one of the many that were tabled at the Ministerial Conference, and will remain so unless the Ministerial Conference adopts it by consensus.

As at the moment of writing, deep divisions on the substantive agenda before MC11, and the stance of the US towards any outcome at the MC, resulted in the conference collapsing without any declaration and decisions. (See separate story by D. Ravi Kanth).

The "Joint Declaration on Trade and Women's Economic Empowerment" states without offering evidence that "international trade and investment are engines of economic growth for both developing and developed countries, and that improving women's access to opportunities and removing barriers to their participation in national and international economies contributes to sustainable economic development".

This is followed by a promise to hold seminars on a range of matters including to identify "barriers" that limit women's participation in trade, to enhance women entrepreneurs' participation in public procurement markets and the inclusion of women-led businesses, in particular micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), in value chains. In 2019 a progress report would be issued.

Some 200 women rights groups and "allied organizations" from around the world, mainly from developing countries, circulated a photocopied counter-declaration, objecting to this "pink washing" of trade rules perceived as unfair to women.

Among the 200-odd women's groups that came out against the draft joint declaration, viewing it as "pink washing" the WTO, are leading environmentalist and activist on women's rights from India, Vandana Shiva, the Mahila Dakshata Samiti, National Alliance for Women, Public Advocacy Initiative for Rights and Values in India (PAIRVI), Federation of Women Farmers' Rights, RITES Forum, Society for Rural Education and Development, Indian Social Action Forum, Tamil Nadu Women's Forum, and Centre for Research and Advocacy from India; and women groups in the USA, France, Australia, UK, Fiji, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Philippines, Turkey, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Burundi, Ghana, Pakistan, Bolivia, Rwanda, Senegal, Spain, Argentina, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Nepal, Mexico, Cambodia, Indonesia, Hong Kong (China), Thailand, El Salvador, Congo, Jordan and Myanmar.

The official declaration was initially distributed to WTO members by Iceland and Sierra Leone, but during the press conference, Amina Mohamed, Kenyan minister for Foreign Trade, credited authorship to Arancha Gonzalez, executive director of the International Trade Centre (ITC), the joint agency of UNCTAD and the WTO dedicated to support the internationalization of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Gonzalez was Chief of Staff to WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy between 2005 and 2013.

An official communication of ITC credits the drafting of the declaration to the Trade Impact Working Group, which is a sub-group of the International Gender Champions initiative. The "gender champions" are some sixty "senior leaders."

Most of them are Geneva-based ambassadors, but the list also includes the UN secretary-general, the heads of many Geneva-based UN agencies and the Director-General of the WTO, Roberto Azevedo, who thus had two oversight roles (as "gender champion" and as co-boss of ITC) over the advise that he claimed he had officially received today.

During the press conference, Azevedo promised to "play my whole part in following this guidance from the membership", since "the WTO is all about taking down barriers".

He announced his intent to create a Women's Entrepreneurs Program within the action plan on trade and gender of the WTO and a "partnership with the World Bank in generating data and understanding on trade and gender".

[While the WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo claimed it was "guidance by Members" to the WTO, thus implying he and the secretariat will implement it, legally and in terms of WTO rules and practices and decision-making by consensus, it remains a draft, and a suggestion from members, but not the collectivity of the WTO membership.

[It has no other status. Any secretariat activity, and thus expenditure, would need at least the sanction by consensus of the WTO budget committee, and on its recommendation that of the General Council. This would need the official records of MC11 that the draft Declaration was adopted by consensus.

[At best, the draft is an initiative of functionaries of international organisations and inter-governmental institutions, none of whom having been specifically mandated by their own organisations, and very few grassroots movements behind. And none of the organisations have acted in their own remit to change the asymmetries in the international economic systems that siphon benefits from the poor to the very rich, with gender inequalities as just another symptom.

[The Geneva-based International Trade Centre (ITC), in a press release, claimed that "actions outlined in the Declaration will ultimately boost economic growth worldwide and provide more and better paid jobs for women. These actions will also contribute to UN Global Development Goals, including the Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality through the empowerment of women and girls (SDG 5)." - SUNS]

Legal experts following the ministerial conference in Buenos Aires noticed the similitude between the proposed "series of seminars" and the "study groups" of the nineties that led to proposals for WTO negotiations on the so-called "Singapore issues".

Indian scholar and environmental activist Vandana Shiva commented that "women were the first to show how WTO was institutionalised capitalist patriarchy on a world scale .We will not allow "women" to be used as a Trojan horse to expand and extend a system that is destroying the lives and livelihoods of women and children, peasants and workers, and the planet".

Both Arancha Gonzalez and Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland, emphasized that "the declaration is not about rules but to understand the issues better".

Yet, Jorge Faurie, foreign relations minister of Argentina, said that "we have to do more to adapt rules and practices".

Recognizing that "some NGOs say that WTO rules have had negative impact on women", Ambassador Yvette Stevens of Sierra Leone said that "this precisely justifies what we are trying to do" with the declaration.

Also on the panel as one of the initial advocates of the initiative, Francois-Philippe Champagne, minister of international trade of Canada, "a country with a feminist agenda and a feminist PM", said that "we still need to advocate" to widen the list of signatories to the text that "brings a progressive trade agenda to world stage".

The counter-declaration of women's groups argues, instead, that "the declaration takes a very narrow approach to assessing the gendered impacts of trade. Even if the benefits the WTO bestows on the richest 1% of the world's population were evenly split between men and women, the majority of the world's women would not benefit."

"Increasing access to credit and cross border trade for a few women will not benefit women's human rights overall. The declaration is a "pink herring", an attempt to obscure the harm WTO provisions have on women while ensuring the WTO can bring in "new issues", likely to deepen inequality."

It adds that "if governments are genuinely interested in advancing women's human rights through just trade arrangements, they would allow for pro-poor public stockholding of food, allow any domestic regulations a state deems necessary to advance women's human rights and the public interest, ensure that states can fully utilise intellectual property flexibilities to provide access to medicines, seeds, technologies that advance women's human rights and refrain from entering into any bilateral or multilateral agreements that further restrict the capacity to use domestic regulations in the interests of the public in any way they deem necessary".

Finally, probably noticing that it is the reluctance of the United States to engage in any multilateral or even plurilateral trade agreement that actually blocks this Ministerial Conference from reaching any agreement, the civil society signatories conclude that "we do not seek a retreat to combative nationalism in the name of trade protectionism. We support multilateralism. However, multilateralism must be based on solidarity, democracy and human rights, rather than the interests of unaccountable multinational corporations or wealthy states."