In October 2016, AWID attended the 2nd session for the Intergovernmental Working Group for Transnational Corporations in Geneva, to push for a binding treaty on businesses and human rights. Increasing evidence of the gendered impacts of corporate abuse make it imperative for feminists, women human rights defenders (WHRD’s) and Women’s Rights Organizations challenging corporate power on the ground, to share their perspectives, experience and demands.
It has become a deeply worrying trend. Every week we see more news of violent backlash against activists protesting the actions of corporations around the world, with many activists, including women human rights defenders like Berta Cáceres paying with their lives for defending their communities and their territories. Examples abound, from those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States; indigenous communities resisting the Agua Zarca dam project in Honduras; or the Niger Delta where women continue to challenge oil exploration by international oil companies.
Corporate power and human rights
The sheer size and scope of corporate power, when compared to nation states, can be difficult to comprehend. Research shows that 63% of the top 175 global economic entities are transnational corporations, not countries.
Up until now, the ability to sue corporations for human rights violations and environmental damage has depended on national governments’ capacities, political will, and resources to pay the exorbitant amounts of money to sustain such international lawsuits, to hold corporations accountable and demand compensation.
The myriad of investment protection agreements signed by States with corporations often allow the latter to escape any consequences and opt for voluntary compensations instead. After the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 workers -the majority of which were women- international mobilization to demand accountability from international garment brands resulted in only meager compensation to the families of those killed in their place of work.
The recent leak through the Panama Papers confirmed fears long held by states and civil society, that outrageous tax dodging practiced by some of the largest corporations in the world are more prevalent than previously thought. This is revenue that should be available to fund public services such as quality healthcare, education, or care services within the countries where these corporations produce and sell. In essence, depriving national governments of these resources, which is contrary to the advancement of women’s and human rights and equality.
With the rise of corporate tycoons to the global political arena, in alliance with -or themselves heads of- corporations; tax dodging and de-regulation of corporate activities in the name of “investment protection” could get worse if it goes unchecked.
Time for a treaty
Now, the state of impunity that has relied on the “good will” of corporations to make amends has a real chance of being overturned. There is proposal to have an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights. The proposal, currently under study of an open-ended intergovernmental working group (IGWG) working within the UN Human Rights Council has the support from several countries and civil society activists.
The treaty negotiations provide a unique opportunity for citizens and states to address the gaps that currently exist within the Investor-State Dispute mechanisms, which allow corporations to sue governments in cases where their operations and profits are interfered with through legislation and regulations. This mechanism has made it very difficult for governments to regulate corporate operations in the interest of their citizens.
Among the challenges ahead is to ensure the text of the treaty does not fall short of ambition. The treaty needs to have clear implementation mechanism to be more than mere words on paper.
Gendered impacts of corporate abuse are largely overlooked.
For example, WHRDs confronting corporate abuse in their communities have repeatedly denounced how they are targeted, not only for the work they do, but also because of their gender. This includes rape, sexual assault, and threats to themselves and their families, to restrict their political participation in the public sphere. Their perspectives need to be taken into account in any binding treaty through the voices of WHRDs themselves.
While in Geneva for the 2nd session of the Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations, AWID asked feminist activists about their hopes and demands for this process.
This is what they had to say:
“Corporations run large parts of the economy and yet they largely escape accountability. It’s hard to bring them to court; it’s hard to break their political power. They run governments. It’s also important for women, as many women’s issues are not addressed by the law. We can really draw a parallel: Women’s issues aren’t private; they are public and subject to international law. Corporations, even if they are private entities, have effects on the public sphere too”.
Beth Stephens, Center for Constitutional Rights, USA
“A binding treaty to stop corporate abuse is essential to the protection of women’s rights. For too long, women in all parts of life; women in rural areas; women from indigenous communities; women from social minorities; women suffering poverty, have had to carry the worst effects of human rights violations and denial of basic livelihood because of corporate power working in coordination with States that have refused or failed to protect women’s human rights. We need to have a binding treaty in order to equalize that situation. Women have been resilient in facing many challenges throughout the past few decades but that resilience is not un-ending. We need States to step up. We need the international community to step up, and that’s why we need the binding treaty. It will not be the only solution but one weapon we have as women human rights defenders to defend our rights. In the negotiations of this treaty we must have women’s voices, particularly from affected communities at the center, speaking up and making as much noise as possible. Otherwise, this is going to be a men’s treaty”.
Debbie Stothard, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Burma
“We’ve seen corporate abuse of human rights for decades. We’ve seen how they operate and how States are not capable of doing their job right and regulate them. They have captured several public decision-making spheres. A treaty is very important to have a legally binding instrument that really allows for corporations to be accountable, including not only transnational corporations, but also those with participation from States and those that contribute with financing for projects on the ground. It’s essential to think of the impacts that these corporations are having on the lives of women, for example on labor rights, the gender pay gap, the impact on women in local communities when there are human rights violations - especially economic, social and cultural rights-, capture of land, territories, and natural resources that have an impact on rural and indigenous communities”.
Fernanda Hopenhaym, Poder, México.
Engage with the civil society groups influencing the process, visit the website of the Treaty Alliance.
Read more on AWID's work on the state of corporate power and how feminists are challenging it around the world, see infographics and report: "Challenging corporate power"
Learn more about Women Human Rights Defenders fighting corporate power and abuse and the ways in which you can support them.