By Margaux Bolzan, 11 November 2020
This article provides an introduction and update into the negotiations for a binding treaty on business and human rights, outlining why it is important for feminists to keep pushing for this treaty, given the profoundly unequal and notably disproportionate effects on women through the activities of transnational companies.
The Binding Treaty Negotiations
In 2012, South Africa and Ecuador called for a legally binding instrument on transnational corporations. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) established an Open Ended Inter-governmental Working Group (OEIGWG) for the development of a legally binding treaty on transnational companies and other business enterprises with respect to human rights. The goal was to put an end to the global loopholes in international human rights law and ensure that corporations are made legally accountable for human rights violations and environmental crimes.
Since 2014 annual negotiations on the text have been held between governments. However, the progress for a binding treaty at the UN-level has been slow. In August 2020, a second draft was released and this same year, the sixth session of the OEIGWG, took place from 26 to 30 October 2020.
Many business activities of transnational companies generate profoundly unequal and notably disproportionate effects on women whose rights require special strengthening. As part of the Feminists for a Binding Treaty Coalition, many NGOs advocate to structurally embed women’s rights and gender equality in the treaty. This coalition gathers more than 15 organisations working together to integrate a gender perspective into this treaty and to ensure that a gender approach and women’s voices, rights, experiences and visions are visible and prioritized throughout the negotiation process.
Webinar « Feminist Visions for a Binding Treaty »
A digital event was held on Thursday, 22 October 2020, organised by Feminists for a Binding Treaty (F4BT). It gathered NGO speakers from South Africa, Uruguay, Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal and Switzerland. Each of these countries suffer from various inequalities and discrimination issues: women’s sexual harassment and poverty, extractivism, child labour, water contamination and deforestation, disinformation, etc.
Kenya, for example, is struggling with many cases of sexual harassment and exploitation of women in tea plantations which lead to financial inequality of young women. Moreover, some transnationals companies spread toxic chemicals in the waters, killing the fish. Guatemala is also struggling with huge environmental and social problems due to the palm oil companies. LGBT women in Nepal are facing various type of discrimination: no jobs or a huge wage gap, no health insurance, no union to represent them, harassment and lack of legal protection.
In sum, an international binding treaty requires a gender perspective, a protection of human rights defenders and women at decision-making positions. Speakers at the webinar also demanded social, environmental, gender and economical justice and the end of transnational companies’ impunity.
Case study: « Women’s rights violations in Dutch palm oil supply chains: the case of Guatemala »
Action Aid (Netherlands and Guatemala) recently published a study on the linkages between the palm oil production for export in Guatemala and the violation of women´s human rights.
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil worldwide because of its low price and variety of products based on it (foodstuff, cosmetics, agrofuel, etc.), but its negative impacts are various. First, the environmental impacts of large-scale palm oil plantations are terrible: deforestation, loss of biodiversity, water depletion and contamination. Secondly, there are social issues intrinsically linked: land grabbing, human rights abuses, violation of indigenous peoples´ and women’s rights, violence against rights defenders.
Women in Guatemala now have to do long walks to provide their families with food and find clear water, because of the water contamination and deforestation. Their workload has obviously become heavier and these plantations offer them only low wages jobs. Not only women’s rights abuses have been reported but also institutional and sexual violence against women’s rights defenders are more and more common. Moreover, women are not included in the decisions-making process and threatened for refusing to sell their land or for standing up against these abuses. Ultimately, all these awful consequences are interdependent and most of the time, it threatens women’s livelihoods and doubles their unpaid care work.
The sixth session of the OEIGWG
The “Feminists for a Binding Treaty Coalition” advocates for a UN Binding Treaty for Transnational Corporations on Human Rights that includes gender equality and women´s rights concerns.
During the latest session in October 2020, some interesting proposals from states and NGOs were presented. Overall, many of them suggested to strengthen the protection of victims with low court costs for the “have-nots”, provide free legal aid for children, add a gender perspective in order to include women in the consultations, and force the states to take measures in case of human rights violations.
However, these negotiations started with a dramatic drop in participation by states. Scepticism regarding reparations to victims of human rights abuses came early on from both Brazil and China. Brazil requested further information on international standards, while China simply denied that such standards exist in the field of human rights violations.
Moreover, it is alarming that for the moment, except a strong support from some local authorities in France, Spain and Germany, there was no article in the press or ads on the UN’s social networks. More serious even, major economies in which many multinationals are based (USA, Canada, the EU and Australia) do not officially take part in the negotiations, despite their commitments on human rights, gender equality and the Sustainable Development Goals.
About the author: Margaux Bolzan, graduated from a master degree in Political Science, based in France and currently working with Wide Austria.