The WTO Declaration on Women and Trade: A barrier breaker or a “pink herring”?

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

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 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.

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 Aracha González, 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. González 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 officially received today.

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

He announced his intent to create a Women's Enterpreneurs 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”.

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 González and Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, 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, François-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 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 bi-lateral or multi-lateral 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 what 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.”

By Roberto Bissio.

Source: SUNS - South North Development Monitor, #8596, Thursday 14 December 2017 .