10 November 2021
WTO Heads for a Ministerial Declaration on Trade and Gender
Photo credit: Raphael Pouget / Climate Visuals Countdown
story highlights

A Joint Ministerial Declaration on trade and gender will be adopted during MC12.

The US, which had not formally endorsed the trade and gender agenda created within the WTO, is now on board.

The Draft Declaration fails to acknowledge the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has just issued the text of a Draft Ministerial Declaration on the Advancement of Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment in Trade. This sets the course for members to adopt the Declaration during the WTO Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12), which starts later this month.

The Declaration’s main points are not expected to change, although some wording may be adjusted in the days between now and MC12. The Nigerian delegation, for instance, whilst affirming the country’s commitment to trade and gender and women’s economic empowerment, has asked that a sentence be added to the current draft to make it explicit that the Declaration applies to the particular situation of women in developing countries.

The draft Declaration was prepared by the “Friends of Gender” group, comprised of 19 WTO members, four international organizations, and the WTO Secretariat. The group was open to all, with most of the participants coming from the global North.

Botswana, El Salvador, and Iceland – the co-conveners of the WTO Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender (IWG), which started work in late 2020, – coordinated preparation of the draft Declaration, as well as the process of seeking members’ endorsement of the text.

A formal WTO mandate on trade and gender

Once adopted, the Declaration will confirm the mandate for work on trade and women’s economic empowerment within the WTO, and represent a step towards women’s economic empowerment considerations being taken into account in the regular work of WTO bodies.

The Declaration commits members to mainstream a gender equality perspective in Aid for Trade programmes, mandates increased gender-disaggregated data collection, and gives the WTO Secretariat a role in coordinating trade and gender research, including on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women. The Declaration further recommends building a work plan towards MC13. It sets the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender on course to continue its work around its existing four work pillars: 1) best practices on increasing women’s participation in trade; (2) understanding what a “gender lens” is; (3) reviewing gender-related research; and (4) contributing to the WTO’s Aid-for-Trade Work Programme.

It is expected that the Working Group will remain informal. This is partly due to some members’ reticence to having more Joint Statement Initiatives (JSIs) – work streams that only involve part of the WTO’s membership. More importantly though, the co-conveners agree that the Informal Working Group’s work is still exploratory. “It is not because IWG participants are not interested but because we are still figuring out how the trade and gender work will fit in,” said one of the Informal Working Group’s co-conveners.

A Joint Statement or WTO Declaration?

A cautious approach is warranted as some members fear that work on trade and gender may turn into a JSI with a negotiating mandate, or, in the words of a developing country ambassador, “that the gender issue can be used to restrain trade from some countries. Mistrust still remains although on the surface there are many adherents to what is deemed to be a harmless Declaration.”

Indeed, public responses to the Draft Declaration continue to be positive. In the words of a European delegate, “no opposition has been expressed to the Declaration so far. In fact, it contains more that we agree on than we disagree on, and so offers a welcome opportunity to foster collaboration between members in the WTO.”

Significantly, a number of delegations that participated in drafting the MC12 trade and gender Declaration had not endorsed the Buenos Aires Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment. The final list of signatories is not yet known but it is expected that it will include the US who had not previously formally endorsed WTO trade and gender work. “The US was super engaged in the drafting,” one of the participants in the Friends of Gender group commented.

Participants in the process and observers alike are keeping a close eye on the numbers. The key question is: will the number of members endorsing the MC12 Declaration be higher than the number of those who endorsed the Buenos Aires Joint Declaration? In 2017, 118 members and observers endorsed the latter during MC11 in Argentina, and a further nine added their endorsements subsequently.

One aspect of the endorsement process has raised some eyebrows: all those WTO members who agreed to the Buenos Aires Declaration are assumed to endorse the Draft Declaration unless they explicitly opt out. “In terms of governance, the opt-out process is an interesting development,” said a former Latin American negotiator. 

It is worth noting that the Draft Declaration is issued as an official WTO document, with a MIN(21) symbol assigned to it, and will be a formal outcome of MC12. This contrasts with the Buenos Aires Declaration, which is not an official WTO document. As reflected in its title, the Declaration was adopted “on the occasion of” – and not by – “the WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires.” Thus, even if the whole WTO membership does not approve the Declaration, it will be a “Joint Ministerial Declaration.”

Unpaid Care Work, GDP growth but no CEDAW

Some other aspects of the Draft Declaration deserve special mention. One is its explicit reference to women’s unpaid care and domestic work, reportedly advocated for by the UK, picking up on gender equality elements of the 2020 Group of Seven (G7) communiqué.

Another is the preambular statement, which includes “ensuring full recognition of women’s economic rights will raise GDP.” “Such a bold statement could encourage those countries who don’t recognize equal rights for women to join the Declaration, or it could change these countries’ attitude towards women’s rights,” commented one observer.

“A broad base of empirical research across a variety of countries shows that gender equality in human development and economic empowerment is good for economic growth,” noted Professor Elissa Braunstein, editor of Feminist Economics, in response to these elements of the Declaration. “Lowering women’s disproportionate responsibilities for care is good for both well-being and the economy. Strengthening women’s economic rights provides an essential framework for achieving these goals,” she added.

In light of this, it is surprising that the Draft Declaration does not name the applicable international legal frameworks on non-discrimination and gender equality. Earlier versions of the Draft Declaration did name the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – the international women’s rights treaty that all WTO members except one have ratified, but the reference was dropped in the final draft.

This has elicited comment in several quarters. Bahamian attorney Marion Bethel, who is a member of the CEDAW Committee – the body of experts that oversees CEDAW’s implementation – expressed “deep” regret “that there is no mention of the Convention in this Declaration,” recalling “that there was a reference to CEDAW in the 2017 Buenos Aires Declaration.”

“Some members had sensitivities about referring to non-WTO texts in a WTO Declaration,” one of the co-conveners explained. “We needed to adjust the level of ambition in terms of the content of the Declaration so as to get the support of as broad a number of members as possible,” he added.

Going forward, the WTO faces the challenge of ensuring that its gender equality framework is consistent with pre-existing international legal standards.

* * *

By Caroline Dommen, Senior Associate, IISD

This Policy Brief  is a follow-up to an article titled, ‘WTO Advances Gender Agenda Amidst Calls for Broader Gender Lens,’ the SDG Knowledge Hub featured on 26 July 2021.

related events

related posts