Feminists Demand an End to Corporate Impunity
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the impact of corporate abuse
As we write this, some of us live in countries that continue to lack access to COVID-19 vaccines, solely due to the profit-seeking strategies of certain pharmaceutical companies and the political influence they possess. The past year provided a clear illustration, when the pandemic exposed serious gaps in our global governance systems, which allowed corporations to put profit before people during a global public health crisis.
The ongoing public health crisis also accompanies the global climate emergency, with each exacerbating the other. Research tells us that the climate emergency too, is largely driven by corporations with just 20 fossil-fuel companies driving a third of all carbon emissions in the world. Policymakers must urgently respond to corporate abuse with systemic change.
There is an abundance of evidence that large-scale businesses and conglomerates are responsible for severe abuses of human rights in their supply chain and business operations. Their behaviour during the pandemic is a clear illustration of that.
For example, some fashion brands left workers in their supply chain to fend for themselves as they cancelled or suspended their orders at the start of the pandemic. This “organised abandonment of workers” triggered a humanitarian crisis for millions of garment workers around the world, most of them women. While they shirked responsibility for workers, these very brands still paid out millions in dividends to their shareholders.
We know it is not just women garment workers who are affected by how corporations prioritise profit over people. The effects of the pandemic across sectors have been far-reaching and devastating, requiring gender-sensitive justice. Yet, due to their international nature and lack of regulation, most of these corporations are rarely brought to justice. Voluntary measures and self-regulation have proved to be insufficient in holding corporations liable for their actions, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (known as the Ruggie Principles) which eventually leave respect for human rights to the benevolence of corporations. The time is now for governments to act and end corporate impunity through regulation.
This is one of the key driving motivations of the Feminists for a Binding Treaty, a feminist collective pressing for corporations to be held accountable for their actions and impacts. From 25 to 29 October, governments will gather at the United Nations in Geneva to negotiate the regulation of corporations to better protect human rights. This annual process, agreed upon in 2014, has the mandate to create a “legally binding instrument”, a global human rights instrument to “regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.”
In its most recent draft (the third), the draft treaty sets out the rights that victims of corporate human rights abuses must be guaranteed in order to ensure reparations for harm. It also unpacks the role of the State in establishing and implementing due diligence policies and practices to regulate corporations. The draft treaty also tackles important jurisdictional issues that prevent victims from accessing justice particularly in cross-border cases, as well as the issue of liability of corporations.
Gendered impacts of corporate abuse
Even a human rights treaty, however, falls short when it fails to take into account the differentiated impacts of corporations on various individuals and groups in situations of vulnerability. As feminists, we know that corporate power is far from neutral, and instead colludes with patriarchy, capitalism, racism, militarism and structural discrimination, becoming detrimental to the most marginalized in society.
For example, a recent study on palm oil supply chains in Guatemala showed that the expansion of palm oil plantations has led to a loss of livelihood and has heavily impacted women’s unpaid care burden. Clearing of forests, land-grabbing and contamination of natural resources by palm oil manufacturers make it difficult for women to access clean water, forest resources and food to sustain their households. Those women standing up to these corporations often face gender-based violence, stigmatisation and criminalisation. Despite these grave women’s rights abuses, the multinational companies linked to these business activities continue to source materials with little to no changes and consequences.
Such gender-based human rights violations and abuses are sadly typical in several global supply chains across sectors, businesses and countries. This is why the draft treaty must view corporate abuse through the lens of gender-responsive human rights protection. Only in this way will decision-makers be able to recognise, prioritise and redress the gendered effects of abuses committed by businesses. Indeed even States that have adopted regulations on human rights due diligence for businesses, like France, have failed to ensure gender-responsive measures. As a result, companies are still failing to assess and address abuses of women’s rights in their activities as shown in a recent study.
It is clear then, that corporate impunity is a feminist issue. Yet, many governments that say they are committed to women’s rights and gender issues have not engaged in the treaty negotiations.
The need for a gender-responsive and ambitious treaty
Building on our engagement with this intergovernmental process, our feminist collective is calling for the instrument to recognise and respond to the different ways women, gender-diverse people, and members of disenfranchised communities experience corporate abuse and face additional barriers in obtaining justice and remedy.
In order to effectively tackle the gendered impacts of corporate abuse, we are calling for States to raise standards of corporate accountability. This includes requiring corporations to conduct gender-sensitive human rights due diligence, instituting gender-transformative remedies and implementing specific protections for women human rights defenders.
We need a radical and ambitious framework to address the stark imbalance of power and wealth between individuals and corporations, and a system that condones human rights abuses and targets women human rights defenders, environmental defenders and other human rights defenders who speak out against corporate abuse. Strengthening corporate accountability is the way to prevent abuses and ensure access to justice for women and gender-diverse people seeking remedy for corporate abuse. The treaty is our opportunity to achieve this. States must engage actively and constructively in negotiations to make it happen.
The need to end corporate impunity is severe and it is urgent. How can you help? Check your government’s position on the binding treaty, call on your government to take part in the negotiations and join local and global efforts to support the process! You can also read our proposals on the latest version of the draft treaty in English, Spanish and French and share them with your government.
Feminists for a Binding Treaty is a coalition of over 30 human rights organizations, representing a large and diverse network of women’s lived experiences, shared analysis and expertise from around the world in the process for a Binding Treaty. Follow #Feminists4BindingTreaty for updates on this session of Binding Treaty negotiations.