Spotlight on Trade, Tariffs and Gender

The commentary for this first week of March was intended to focus on the various controversies and advances on gender that are being featured around International Women’s Day. In spite of the turbulence with which this month has opened (in both weather and trade politics!), it is still timely to touch on a number of these developments – especially since we can cheer the momentum leading to a declaration on gender and trade at the WTO.  See photo below from a panel at the WTO just one year ago.

Setting the Stage for a Declaration on Gender and Trade, 8 March 2017

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is also worthy of some attention – “The Time Is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives”. But this has all been upended by a more fundamental challenge to today’s global rules-based trading system, having to do with a trade war invoking “national security” on steel and aluminum. So first a few words on that – and then back to the gender theme – which includes reflections on the encouraging developments in gender-based activism involving trade policy but also on the burgeoning allegations of sexual harassment that are spilling over into the UN system and major global NGOs. Will they bring a major behavioural change? Read more here.

Tweeting on Tariffs

There is a faction within the Trump Administration that is gloating over the “Tweeting on Tariffs” – emanating from the person whom we consider to be the most unreliable of Presidents in US history – that have sent the rest of the world into a tailspin. I say this in spite of the fact that it is traditionally the Democratic Party in the US that has been far more protectionist than the Republicans.  And one does see, even in the liberal press outside of the US (e.g. The Guardian), signs of this pro-labour protectionism in the critiques of the current rules-based trading system of the World Trade Organization (WTO). In fact, the tariffs in question have been very speedily endorsed by the American labour movement’s AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.  It is not entirely clear who within the US political system will protest this alarming and escalating threat to the rules-based system that this particular initiative is bringing about – other than the wing of the Republican Party that has been left out in the cold by this decision. This is very ironic.

President Trump thinks that trade wars are “easy to win”. And this one clearly is a trade war in the making. The tweets from this unreliable man are announcing plans to implement a global-wide tariff of 25 per cent on steel imports into the US and a 10 per cent tariff on aluminum imports.  Although the decision to penalize steel and aluminum imports with tariffs or quotas can be criticized across the board, it is the specific context of the actions that triggers even greater alarm.  While other Presidents have imposed unilateral tariffs, whether on steel or automobiles or tires, this is the first time since 1983 that the tariffs are being imposed – and in such a draconian way – under a legal provision, Section 232 of the US trade law, having to do with “national security”.  In other recent interventions, the legal justification has been less draconian (relying on anti-dumping or countervailing duties and safeguard mechanisms) and more methodical – such as in the transparency of evidence gathering and consultations among affected parties.

Invoking the “national security” clause

What makes this especially alarming is that the “national security” rationale has dangerous implications for the World Trade Organization (WTO).  It has even triggered a rare protest from the WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevedo, who normally avoids criticizing the policies of specific member countries.  Although it has been raised in another recent trade dispute involving Qatar, this announcement from the US seems to be a significant turning point for the future of the WTO, given the source.  The invoking of “national security” opens up serious potential for disruption of the rules-based trading system. If the opponents to the US measures challenge the action at the WTO and win, the risk is high that the US will pull out.  If the opponents challenge the action and lose, the WTO is opened up to numerous other “national security” justifications for trade barriers (e.g. freedom of speech in e-commerce).  If no challenges are made, the US sets the stage for acting in a highly protectionist way outside of the WTO rules.  So it is no surprise that Mr. Azevedo has raised the alarm.

Immediate media reaction within the US has been directed to the general ineffectiveness of tariffs to benefit a country’s economy and especially in the context of the current economic situation. That is to say, there is a dichotomy between current political distress about China’s oversupply of steel and aluminum in the global market and the very low proportions of Chinese imports into the US in either of these sectors.  In fact, the overwhelming proportion of imports is from US allies (Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and South Korea), which raises the question of what the US means by “national security”.  As this unfolds, it also has major implications in the European Union. The EU has already announced a readiness to impose retaliatory tariffs on US motorcycles (Harley-Davidson), clothing (Levi’s) and alcohol (bourbon), while the Trump tweet response is escalating with a counter-threat of raising tariffs on EU cars!

So one can expect a turbulent week at the WTO to distract everyone from the original plan for a gender focus there – and, because of the seriousness of this policy twist, it even distracts from gender-related events elsewhere in the international community. While it is still noteworthy to take note of this gender focus here, it just seemed urgent enough to say a few words about the alarm bells that are ringing on this far more fundamental issue for the WTO’s survival. No matter what one might think about the glut in the global markets for steel and aluminum, the choice of action under Section 232 on national security grounds is a veritable earthquake.

International Women’s Day – the rural/urban theme

The theme for 2018 International Women’s Day is “The Time Is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives”.  This does seem a bit odd, but fair enough. Most UN-related events on the theme are dealing with rural activists – or actually, the challenges facing the quarter of the world’s population of women in rural areas – and not with any of the “urban activists”. It is, of course, in rural areas where women’s poverty and lack of empowerment have been most pervasive, and we should all be supportive of (and involved in) holding discussions about what can be done to engage with women in rural areas to overcome poverty and empower economic transformations.

The ILO is making a point of addressing this theme at its 8 March event. UNCTAD is organizing a similar event later in March on making trade agreements work for rural women. It is good to identify, on the one hand, the kinds of policy barriers that women in rural areas are encountering. On the other hand, one can argue that it is the cultural barriers to empowerment of women and girls that seem to be especially daunting in rural areas, as illustrated by the recent abducting of yet another hundred plus girls in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram. Clearly, there is a need to mobilize public opinion about the cultural practices that need to change, as well as the socio-economic policy measures.  The thematic focus should help advance awareness of these issues and identify solutions to them, too!

The challenge of sexual harassment

On the sexual harassment front, though, there seems to be a lot more happening than ever before. It started in the entertainment industry, with both the #MeToo movement taking off rather spontaneously in the last months of 2017 and then the launch of Time’sUp in January 2018, mobilizing awareness and action – and funds against sexual harassment in the entertainment world. This has spilled over into the political world and more broadly into the world of work.

In addition, there is now a whole cascade of exposés unfolding within the UN system itself. Well, some of the exposés were there before, mostly involving peacekeeping operations. But the SG has recently reiterated a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual exploitation. And at its last meeting of the Chief Executives Board (CEB) in late 2017, the UN did establish an inter-agency task force to implement this zero tolerance policy, to be led by Jan Beagle, the Under-Secretary General for Management. A hotline for confidential filing of complaints and a new team of special investigators are also being put into place. But the apparent scandals of past neglect when complaints were filed without satisfactory outcomes are popping up – at UNAIDS, UNESCO, the UN itself, and also at NGOs like Oxfam and Care International and even the Swiss-run ICRC. New revelations are one after the other.

One has to hope that there will be a cultural change in  both preventive policies and actual behaviour to address this complicated aspect of striving for gender equality.  For example, the UNOG Director-General Michael Moller has announced a new policy for the UN in Geneva on holding a dialogue and taking action on how “casual sexism” contributes to sexual harassment and violence. This is worth encouraging as part of this campaign for cultural and behavioural change. UNAIDS has issued a new five-point plan to prevent and address all forms of harassment to strengthen accountability and transparency. We can expect the NGOs and ICRC to be taking similar actions to strengthen their oversight of what really needs to be a very substantial cultural change.

Basic targets for gender equality

Meanwhile, there continue to be the more fundamental challenges of achieving the targets for gender equality that have been laid out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The world of work is especially relevant here, and we have long supported the work of the ILO to monitor the global and national trends for equalizing employment and opportunity for men and women. Their latest information shows that 49 per cent of women and 76 per cent of men of working age are participating in the labour force, but that 70 per cent of women would actually prefer to work in paid jobs.  So the first task is to help women enter the labour force, but then, as other statistics also show, women  also have higher unemployment rates – and clearly lower wages – than men.  So there is a lot yet to be done on education, occupational segregation, discrimination in hiring, equal pay, family/work balance and access to child care. With a focus on urban and rural differentials, the discussions around 2018 International Women’s Day can help spur both public policy interventions and and private sector initiatives, aiming for even more targeted effectiveness. Thanks to the ILO for its report on latest trends (available here) and for its focus on rural women (available here).

WTO and Gender

Finally, one should mention the special initiatives on gender being taken by member states at the WTO . Our involvement in WTO Public Forums over the years has been focused primarily on organizing sessions to identify what needs to be done and how to mobilize action on gender-oriented trade policies and opportunities.  We have long argued in support of gender-sensitive impact analyses of trade policies as well as active policies to address access and financing barriers for women in international trade. Through our work with the Global Social Observatory and with Hagen Resources International, we helped to organize early sessions in 2003 and 2004 and continued with sessions in more recent years.

Last year, I was pleased to moderate the WTO panel on 8 March 2017 to identify the potential for action going forward. See the photo at the beginning of this commentary.  Panelists came from diplomatic missions, NGOs and the WTO secretariat, with powerful messages about the need for better gender disaggregated data and an appreciation for the gender impact of policies that may appear to be gender neutral but still have a differential impact. Several panelists even mentioned the plight of rural women in agriculture, anticipating, as it were, the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day. The GSO report on the 2017 panel is available here, and more photos of the event can be found here.

It is with enthusiastic support, then, that we note how over 120 member states and observers endorsed the Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade, adopted at the December 2017 WTO Ministerial Conference, and spearheaded by the Geneva Gender Champions Task Force on Trade, with leadership from Iceland, Sierra Leone and the ITC. It is encouraging that the Declaration focuses on gender-based analysis and disaggregated data on the effects of trade policy as well as on what has worked to get women involved. It is impressive, too, that so many governments came on board.  But what we also find illuminating, unfortunately, is who did not join this effort – mostly the Arab countries of the Middle East, but also India, Bangladesh, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela – and the USA! So it is still needing outreach to these “outlyers”.

The special week of events around International Women’s Day includes a briefing on 6 March 2018 on what the WTO iand/or others are planning to do to implement the Buenos Declaration. We see that this will include a series of six seminars, starting with one in March 2018 on a “gender-based analysis of trade policy”. We fully endorse this idea, since it isn’t just a matter of improving access for women to internatonal trade that needs to change. We also commend the Director-General for appointing our friend Anoush des Boghossion as the Gender Focal Point for the WTO, starting in 2017 (better late than never!).  With thanks to Anoush, the WTO will also be holding a programme on 8 March, updating the opportunities for women in trade, facing the challenges for access and addressing the gender policies within the WTO itself.

A Further Note on Gender in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Finally, although this is not an International Women’s Day event or project, there is another initiative worth mentioning here. In this time of increased consciousness of gender-based accountability, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (Working Group) has launched a thematic project to “unpack” the gender dimension of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The Working Group is the main channel for the UN Human Rights Council to be working with the business community on gender. One should recall that the UNGPs  apply both to the duty of governments and the responsibility of business to respect human rights in the business world. According to the Working Group, this project has the following three broad objectives:

1) Raise sensitivity amongst all stakeholders about the need to adopt a gender lens to implement the UNGPs and in turn mainstream the women issues within the BHR field;

2) Develop guidance to assist both States and business enterprises with practical recommendations for what it means to protect, respect and remedy the rights of women in a business context in line with the UNGPs; and

3) Bring together various agencies, institutions, organizations and actors working in the BHR field to continuously explore ways to empower women who are at-risk or have been adversely affected by business-related human rights abuses. Although “gender” is a broad concept, this project is focusing.

This two-year project is expected to produce guidance on how to combat gender discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity – and including sexual harassment in general. Without further ado, it is inspiring to conclude this commentary with optimism about steps like these at the UN – and at the ILO and WTO.

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