Corporate abuse is a feminist issue

This week’s binding treaty negotiations on transnational corporations must include a gender perspective.

Alejandra Scampini Fernanda Hopenhaym
17 October 2019, 7.58am
PODER accompanies communities affected by corporate abuses in Mexico
María Fernanda Wray, PODER

This article is part of the 'Advancing gender just economies' series, presented by ourEconomy, ActionAid, FEMNET, Womankind Worldwide and Fight Inequality Alliance.

The fifth session of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) that was created to elaborate a binding instrument related to the respect for human rights of transnational corporations and other business enterprises, is taking place the week of October 14 in Geneva.

During this session, the revised draft will be discussed and negotiations will be resumed. Since 2016, feminist activists and organizations have been pointing out the need to incorporate key issues pertaining to women’s rights and how these are affected by corporate abuses. Unfortunately, most of those have not been taken up, and so the struggle to incorporate a feminist perspective in the treaty talks continues.

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So, how did it all start? What led us as feminists to push for this perspective in the Treaty process? What challenges have we faced? Where are we now?

F4BT lands in Geneva

Conversations among feminists began in Geneva in 2016, at that year’s IGWG session. This led to the creation of the Feminists for a Binding Treaty (F4BT) collective, that started as a small group and is now formed by over 40 activists and organizations. Founding members include PODER, APLWD, AWID, DAWN, WILPF, FIDH, FIAN, ESCRnet, FOEi, IWRAW,CELS and CIEL to name a few.

Our core demands: mandatory gender impact assessments of business operations; gender sensitive justice and remedy mechanisms; and ensuring respect, protection and an enabling environment for women human rights defenders (WHRDs).

In these years, feminist activists and organizations have been mobilizing to integrate those demands into the process. This collective work and the political support of many members of the Treaty Alliance and the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power has paid off. We recognize the growing public support from many states for the need to pay attention to “gender” and “women”.

Yet, this is not enough. Integrating a gender perspective should not be about treating women as a “vulnerable group” or taking the approach of “adding women and stirring”. We call for meaningful due diligence that can really highlight and address how business activities have different, disproportionate, or unanticipated impacts on women and other identities, as a result of different gendered social, legal, and cultural roles. In spite of the evidence, gender impacts of corporate abuse are still largely overlooked.

Outside Geneva, the urgency persists

As we arrive at the 5th session, the urgency for a binding treaty persists. Globally, violations of human rights by corporations or public-private consortia are increasing. Our region, Latin America, is the most dangerous for human rights defenders that fight to protect the environment and their territorial rights. According to the report of Consejo de Redacción in Colombia, a total of 1179 people and 177 communities from seven countries in Latin America have been targets of attacks between 2009 and 2018 due to their struggles to protect the environment.

Quite alarming is the fact that there is growing violence against indigenous and afro-descendant peoples and violation of the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), as stated in their recent declaration at the Fourth Regional Consultation of Latin America and the Caribbean on Business and Human Rights, that took place in ECLAC, in Chile. In August this year, indigenous women from more than 110 ethnic groups marched for the first time in a historic demonstration in Brazil with the slogan: “Territory: our body, our spirit”. They denounced the escalating violations of indigenous rights, racism, violence and the most alarming Amazon deforestation rates.

This adds to a context of deep exploitation of natural resources and people, in a region where extractive projects have proliferated vastly in the last ten years. We have seen tragedies like the rupture of the mining dams in Mariana (2015) and Brumadinho (2019) in Brazil, caused by the negligence of the big Brazilian company Vale, with no real consequences yet.

Access to justice and mechanisms for remediation are still weak or nonexistent. In Sonora, Mexico, five years after the major toxic mining spill, the company, Grupo México, has not been held accountable and has failed to deliver on its promises to affected communities to remedy the damage. PODER accompanies these communities, and we have been witness to the specific impacts women have experienced, in their health, in their access to clean water, and as care givers.

Precarious jobs and public service cuts are also at the center of these conversations. Millions of women across more than 50 countries participated this year in the Women’s Global Strike on March 8, to denounce violence in the work space, gender pay gaps, and precarious labor conditions, to demand the recognition of care work and to highlight the impacts of transnational corporations (TNCs) when taking over land and devastating traditional livelihoods, forcing many into migration, among other things.

There are many other challenges. We are witnessing the return of free trade, which is presented as the key to securing foreign investment and, therefore, guaranteeing economic growth. This is taking the form of several free trade and investment agreements, including the Mercosur-EU, the USMCA (the new reincarnation of NAFTA) and Trans Pacific Partnership agreements. This allows for investment protection mechanisms that constrain the sovereignty of states in order to benefit corporations and investors, protect their interests and even allow them to sue those same states that are signing these agreements.

This relates to corporate capture of public decision making spaces. Increasingly, corporations, particularly TNCs, are interfering in the legislative, executive and judicial systems, utilizing diplomacy, lobbying, financing political campaigns, promoting private mechanisms for arbitration and “justice”, manipulating communities, and even being present in the negotiations of the binding treaty. It is of utmost urgency to keep these abusers outside of the negotiating space. One of the reasons we need an international instrument is precisely corporate capture, as many of our states are being co-opted by the interests of big, transnational capital.

Moving forward

So, in this context, how can this instrument be a tool to address the intersecting financial, economic, environmental, care and human rights crises? The key is not to see the upcoming negotiations as a question of good or bad business. It is not a question of financial risks or how to educate consumers choices. This is a question of life or death. It is about corporate-sponsored abuses, violations of human rights and devastation of the environment. And this is certainly a feminist issue.

Can the existing draft treaty address this urgency? Can this tool complement existing mechanisms and close the growing gap between state obligations and international norms? Can this instrument really protect the rights of affected communities and address their demands for justice?

What happens this week in Geneva will be key to answering these questions. Though we have an improved draft compared to the one discussed in 2018, there are still many shortcomings, including in relation to the demands of the F4BT collective.

As feminists we shall remain vigilant to the full recognition of the structural systemic issues underlying the abuses this instrument is supposed to be addressing, and continue to push for the inclusion of a gender-responsive approach in addressing business-related human rights abuses and violations. We will also stress the need for clearer and broader definitions of the scope of business activities and of business relationships to be covered by the treaty.

Prevention will be key in our demands too. There is a need for strong, gender-responsive regulation of business activities and a more proactive role of the state in prevention. We will join forces with many civil society members of the Global Campaign and the Treaty Alliance urging for clearer and stronger provisions on the prevention of business-related human rights abuses in occupied territories, conflict and high-risk areas. We will reinforce the need to include language on access to justice, ensuring gender-transformative remedies and stronger provisions on the protection of human rights defenders, particularly women human rights defenders.

At a time when there is growing momentum to integrate a human rights perspective into business debates, we see this 5th session of the IGWG as an important moment to contribute to the global effort to push for a binding treaty that would really make a difference, while fostering solidarity across and among civil society actors in all our diversity.

It will be essential to go beyond the mantra of “keeping most groups in the room“ and take a meaningful leap forward towards a bolder instrument that stresses the primacy of human rights, that truly addresses the corporate-sponsored abuses affecting communities, while ensuring their participation in all stages of the design, implementation and supervision of the mechanism. As feminists, we won’t let go of our demands and will continue working to contribute substantially to this process. The moment to engage is now!

Follow the conversation including videos on twitter via #Feminists4BindingTreaty

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