Header image for news printout

Statement by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the WTO Public Policy Forum, "Doing it Differently: Reshaping the Global Economy", Geneva, 16 September 2010


Director-General Lamy,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to participate in this panel discussion of the WTO Public Forum entitled “Doing it Differently: Reshaping the Global Economy” and thank Director-General Pascal Lamy for inviting me here today.  He asked me to discuss the issue of gender-specific constraints related to trade, a topic that all too often has remained well below the public’s radar.  I will talk about this specific subject in a moment. But first let me tackle some of the arguments according to which free trade and human rights are ostensibly incompatible.

Yes, it is true that human rights are predicated on the equality of all human beings, while the imperative of comparative advantage in trade inevitably creates winners and losers.  And it is true that human rights’ priorities lie in the protection and empowerment of the vulnerable and the marginalized, while success in trade rewards those who possess a competitive edge in navigating the global markets.  Further, human rights law insists on State obligations, while the liberalization of trade may make the role of States progressively shrink.

I maintain, however, that as engines of human well-being, progress and mutual understanding, the common and potentially reciprocally reinforcing aspects of human rights and trade far outweigh their contrasting features. 
It is not by coincidence that modern human rights law and efforts of the international community to establish a multilateral trading system started in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  At that time, the international community resolved to expunge ideologies of racial supremacy from relations between and among States, as well as the notion that might makes unconstrained right.

The parallel building of the normative and institutional architecture of both human rights and trade must now move, as Pascal Lamy noted, onto a second phase, that of global governance.  Such global governance, he emphasized, should be underpinned by common values, managed by legitimate actors, and exercised according to accepted rules and a system of justice and arbitration.

I submit that human rights standards provide an invaluable framework to properly address the social dimension of both global governance and trade liberalization. 

In this respect, I would like to recall the fact that non-discrimination is a principle which lies at the core of all human rights and should be considered in the implementation of trade rules.  Yet, as the economist Nilüfer Çağatay noted, women and men are affected differently by trade policies. This is due, in part, to social customs, as well as disparities over control of resources.

While, as Çağatay explained, trade liberalization may have increased women’s access to paid jobs, this progress has not been spread equally across sectors and varies from country to country.  Other aspects also hamper women’s contribution.  Women are more likely to work in labour-intensive and low-skilled enterprises.  They have less access to land and financial assets, education and basic services. Their role as mothers and primary care providers for their families absorbs a considerable amount of their time. These factors represent a chronic comparative disadvantage in all parts of the world.

To level the playing field, human rights law is of great guidance.  Specifically, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) sets the legal ground to promote and protect the rights of women in all spheres, including the economic field.  To do so human rights law requires States to take positive measures in order to attain substantive and not merely formal equality between women and men. Further, the Human Rights Committee—the body that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—indicated that the principle of equality enjoins States to take affirmative action to stem the root causes of discrimination.

These principles and responsibilities also apply, mutatis mutandis, to intergovernmental organizations. In this perspective, an international trade regime can and should incorporate all human rights, including the rights of women and accommodate their special needs, as well as take full advantage of their knowledge and skills. Let me be absolutely clear on this score: a normative framework that is not gender-sensitive does not have a gender-neutral impact.  In fact, the end result of “gender blindness” is almost invariably women’s exclusion. 

In wrapping up this brief discussion of legal human rights grounds, let me also point out that the right to development incorporates the principle of international cooperation.  The inclusive and participatory dimension of the right to development can be employed to promote the active, free and meaningful involvement of a broader range of social actors in the deliberations and negotiations at the WTO. It is essential to ensure wide participatory decision-making whereby people’s concerns are not neglected.

Distinguished Participants,

It is well known that women make up a large part of the rural poor in the developing world. In fact, women are the majority of the world’s farmers, and their work accounts for two thirds of the world’s working hours. However, they earn only 10 per cent of the world’s income. Women produce half of the world’s food, yet they are typically concentrated in small land holdings that they till, but do not own, and that may be their only source of food. Their access to markets may be hampered by social constraints or by fear of sexual violence along unsafe roads.  Indeed, lack of security is an incapacitating obstacle in some areas. Credit and access to education and training to improve living conditions and foster entrepreneurship is often beyond women’s reach. 

Clearly, a rule-based international trade system must seek to correct these imbalances with specific rights-based and gender-sensitive approaches that empower women.  At a minimum, it must ensure that their ability to secure food is not hampered by a bias for export crop production, and that States do not divert resources to satisfy that bias. Indeed, access to food is a human right.

As far as the Doha round is concerned, what the world needs is a balanced trade agreement that puts the needs of the hungry—women, men and children—at its centre.  National economic interests should not come at the expense of the most vulnerable.  Moreover, in order to achieve fairer trade liberalization in agriculture, I encourage developed countries to eliminate trade distorting export subsidies, especially given the inability of developing countries to offer similar protection to their farmers. I also encourage them to be particularly alert to those distortions that may hamper women’s welfare at other latitudes. 

Before leaving the topic of rural women and their vulnerabilities, let me note that from time immemorial, as gatherers, women—particularly in indigenous communities—have often identified medicinal plants and developed plant-based pharmaceutical remedies.  Frequently, these traditional medicines have been appropriated, adapted and patented with little or no compensation to the original knowledge holders and without their prior consent. Allow me to draw to your attention the fact that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires States to design intellectual property systems that strike a balance between promoting general public interests in accessing new knowledge and technology, and protecting the interests of authors and inventors in such knowledge.  Bilateral and multilateral trade agreements must comply with this precept.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Another troubling aspect of women’s work in the global market—particularly migrant women’s labour—is that it tends to be concentrated in informal sectors which expose them to a heightened risk of abuse, including low wages, long hours, and uncertainty of tenure. Many of these workers in one given country compete with other women in similar positions in other countries. 

For example, workers in Mexican maquiladoras (the export-oriented factories at the border between Mexico and the USA) have lost jobs against competitors in China and elsewhere.  Such unbridled competition for global market shares among the poor of this world may engender a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions.

In export zones it has been reported that women were required to undergo a maternity test before obtaining employment.  Child care benefits and parental leave are unavailable.

As I mentioned previously, there is a clear need to level the trade playing field. Progress must not merely be measured and assessed in terms of economic growth and volume of exchanges of goods and services, but also in terms of the impact such trade has on those who live at the margins of the global market and have no control over the invisible hands that shape their livelihoods. 

Apparent short-term profits must be balanced against long-term goals that really benefit women and the communities where they are leading agents of social entrepreneurship.  It has been found that when an educated girl earns an income, she reinvests 90 per cent of it in her family, compared to boys who devote 35 per cent of their income to their families.

These are just a few examples of the human rights aspects of trade from a gender perspective. In concluding, let me reiterate that I am confident that the international system will be able to address the imbalances and inequalities that affect the lives of more than half of the world’s working population.  To this end, my Office stands ready to assist.  I also urge national and international trade authorities to cooperate with human rights mechanisms, including the treaty body overseeing the implementation of the CEDAW.

 I do believe that trade can indeed contribute to the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, as long as these rights are taken into consideration in trade negotiations and agreements. To do so, the emerging consensus must be receptive and, in fact, promote women’s participation from the community to the international level.

As a result of the global financial and economic crisis, the need for regulation is now widely acknowledged. When it comes to essential elements of welfare, such as food, health care, and education, the international community and States cannot and should not leave the concerns of human welfare solely to market forces. Such welfare ultimately depends on not trading off women’s rights.

Thank you.