Financial Regulation and Human Rights: Will New WTO Leader Bring Change?

Originally posted on rightingfinance.org on May 20, 2013:

On 8th May Brazil’s Ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo, was named as the consensus candidate for the post of Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This appointment brings a glimpse of hope that trade rules in financial services, especially given the 2008 crisis, can be revisited.

Established on 1st January 1995, the WTO is the legal and institutional foundation of the multilateral trading system. It provides the principal contractual obligations that determine the framework for, and implementation of, domestic trade legislation and regulations. To date, it comprises 159 member-states. The WTO, in collaboration with other multilateral institutions including the IMF and the World Bank, facilitate the liberalization of financial services, and economic harmonization and cohesion across and within member-states. As such, it is a key player in global economic governance and its policies significantly affects the realization of human rights.

To date the WTO has failed to take leadership in a deep rethinking of rules on liberalization of financial services. This rethinking is overdue as those rules were negotiated at a time when neo-liberalism ruled supreme, specifically the view – now proved misplaced — that financial markets should “self-regulate.” Interestingly, Mr. Azevedo noted in his presentation to the WTO General Council that, “[w]hat we do in the WTO has a direct impact on the quality of millions of lives around the globe. But remember, what we don’t do, also affects them.”

Mr Azevedo’s home country, Brazil, is an example of a WTO member state that has made few commitments to liberalize its financial and banking sectors. This policy position not only enabled it to weather the financial crisis (for the most part), it also allows Brazil to implement policies that reduce poverty. In fact, this BRICS country is today considered one of the few “engines of growth” that can save the global economy from its gloomy outlook.

Of course, Mr Azevedo stated that as WTO’s chief he would not necessarily toe Brazil’s policy lines, and this is appropriate. Leadership in a global organization must look beyond the interests of any one country. However, as the effects of the financial crisis shows only too well, it is in the world’s interest to regulate the financial sector in the service of human rights. This harmonization should be done on the basis of what we know now about financial markets, not the anachronistic conceptions of the 1990s. And, this would mean relying on Brazil’s experience – not its policy line.

The role of trade liberalization in financial services in Europe and the United States in the recent financial crisis is under explored, and its consequences on human rights are under-reported. Given the multiple effects of austerity measures on both the enjoyment of human rights and governments’ ability to fulfill their human rights obligations, it is critical that we ask: what are the lessons of the crisis and how they can inform domestic regulation and multilateral agreements involving financial services to better facilitate state and corporate accountability? Let us hope Mr Azevedo takes this opportunity.

by Savi Bisnath, Associate Director, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University

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Economic Disparity in the Workplace

The economic disparity between women and men is a pressing gender equity issue that demands international attention. While current labor trends in North America demonstrate that a majority of American women are now breadwinners in their households, women are not being justly compensated for their work. During my trip to the 57th CSW at the United Nations, I sat on panels that focused on disparities in the work place and the effects these disparities have on women’s labor rights. The UN panel discussions shed light on the stereotypes that exist in the work place and extracts key economic and social issues mentioned in the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report.

The CSW’s Women: Equality of Rights and Labor panel, hosted by Women International Democratic Federation and Regional Office of America, shed light on an important component of economic and social rights, specifically with regards to the public’s outlook on profit. Panelists discussed how capitalism misuses women, especially those in vulnerable economic and social situations, and how this practice exploits situations in which women are forced to work over time without compensation. They said that, with employees’ hours of work defined by capitalism’s need for greater profits, labor mandates affect women’s social rights such as their health.  For instance, working in dirty and dangerous conditions for extended periods of time inflicts short and long-term illness that ultimately affect workers’ ability to secure a healthy lifestyle. As a young female college student, I have a responsibility to become aware of these gendered issues in the workplace and take action. Participation in on-campus initiatives, such as Rutgers Students Against Sweatshops, gives me the outlet through which to spread awareness about these exploitative practices and engage in activism to help women suffering in these situations.

Published by the World Economic Forum, the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report briefs on ways in which these issues affect women across global societies, ranking 135 countries based on 14 different indicators within economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. In assessing the Forum’s report on economic participation, it is crucial to highlight its discussion on the participation gap, which is “captured using the difference in labour force participation rates” and the remuneration gap, which is identified “through a hard data indicator (ratio of estimated female-to-male earned income” (World Economic Forum). Both the participation and remuneration gaps mentioned in the report bridge together the notions that educated women endure gender disparities in the professional work place just as much as women working in laborious factories. For instance, while women working in factory environments experience a form of the remuneration gap- enduring long hours without compensation- women working in professional environments have to combat the participation gap, which maintains glass ceiling theories such that men remain in senior positions. These gendered stereotypes ensure women reach plateaus in their careers, with no hope of reaching management level positions. As a conscientious and motivated college student seeking to pursue a career in the corporate world, I am determined to help shift this societal trend and to break the barriers that prevent women from advancing in the corporate world.

Women, especially those who are formally educated, struggle just as much as women who work in laborious factory environments.  Across the board, whether in laborious or professional working environments, women are enduring economic and social disparities.  These disparities call for all governments and global societies to take a stand, to actively voice women’s rights, and to put an end to economic and social injustices in the workplace.

by Karimah Munem, Spring 2013 Economic and Social Rights Intern, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University

Karimah is currently a sophomore at Rutgers University majoring in Political Science with minors in Spanish and Middle Eastern Studies. 

The Rise of Sexual Violence in Egypt

Attending the events held at 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) for the first time was truly an eye-opening and affective learning for me. The CSW session is an annual event held in NYC that provides a forum to women’s rights NGOs and activists from around the globe to discuss their progress within women’s rights advocacy. The main discussion of the 2013 session was themed around the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.

One event that particularly sustained my interest was The Women and Memory Forum’s panel discussion titled “Women and the Egyptian Revolution: Documentation as Resistance”. The Women and Memory Forum is a women’s rights organization based in Cairo, Egypt whose mission is to document and archive women’s stories of sexual abuse as a way to garner critical attention and open up a discussion about women’s rights violations in Egypt. Since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, there have been an unprecedented number of violent gang assaults towards women in Tahrir Square. Many stories shared in the Forum are accounts of these experiences.

There is an unfortunate disregard for many of these sexual assaults occurring in post-revolutionary Egypt by both the Egyptian media and the political elite. Under President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the omnipresent police ensured that sexual assaults were kept out of public squares, but since his overthrow the absence of tight security forces has allowed sexual assaults to increase, even in the public eye. However, many women have taken advantage of the weakened structure of authority by speaking out against the aggressive news media, even while elected officials maintain deep hostility to women’s participation in politics.

The absence of any real policy change or solutions to these attacks highlights a failure in Mohamed Morsi’s government to restore social order. Many women’s rights activists among others believe that the sexual assaults are organized and coordinated, possibly by state actors, “with the aim of silencing them, excluding them from public spaces and the political events shaping Egypt’s future, and breaking the resistance of the opposition” (Amnesty International). During the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (11 February 2011 to 30 June 2012), women protestors taking part of demonstrations calling for women’s rights and the end of sexual harassment were targeted. Thus far, there has been nobody held accountable for these crimes.

The logistics of archiving are crucial as women’s stories must be framed and presented within larger metanarratives. Many women say that the police add to their degradation by driving women away from demonstrations and political participative events and stripping them of their respectability. Feminist demands during the revolution were not a top priority within political groups.  Women’s demonstrations have not been widely accepted, thus there remains a wide sense of being left out among Egyptian women.

by Marielle Rodriguez, Spring 2013 Economic and Social Rights intern, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University

Marielle is currently a fourth-year student at Rutgers University majoring in Political Science and Visual Arts.