14 June 2022
WTO Ministerial Declaration on Trade and Gender on Indefinite Hold
Photo Credit: Fran Hogan on Unsplash
story highlights

The WTO Ministerial Conference will not adopt the planned Declaration on trade and gender.

It is expected that work on trade and gender will continue within the WTO.

There is still a lack of clarity about what this work should, or will, cover.

By Caroline Dommen, Senior Associate, Economic Law and Policy Program, IISD

Contrary to expectations earlier this year, the draft World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Declaration on trade, gender equality, and women’s economic empowerment is no longer on the table for adoption by the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Geneva this week. Instead, the three WTO members that co-convene the informal working group on trade and gender within the WTO – Botswana, El Salvador, and Iceland – issued a short statement on inclusive trade and gender equality as the Ministerial Conference opened on Sunday, 12 June. The statement summarizes what the WTO’s trade and gender informal working group has done over the past year, and states the co-convenors’ commitment “to continuing work on trade and gender.”

Ólöf Hrefna Kristjánsdóttir, Iceland’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the WTO, told IISD that the co-chairs issued the statement as they felt “it was important to have something at MC12 to say that basically we are going to continue this work.”

A paragraph in the draft MC12 Outcome Document contains a tentative paragraph on women’s economic empowerment. It “acknowledges that the WTO, in collaboration with other relevant international organizations, such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the International Trade Centre (ITC), can provide a forum to engage on this topic.” However, as the paragraph is in square brackets, it might still disappear from the final Outcome Document – assuming the Document is adopted at all.

Speculation as to the causes for withdrawal

There were several hesitations around the planned MC12 Declaration on trade and gender, and there has been speculation as to which of these caused the Declaration to be withdrawn from the MC12 package.

One may be that several developing countries oppose any plurilateral initiative in any form, as IISD reported last year. Additionally, fears persist about the potential for WTO work on trade and gender to introduce labor-related conditionalities into the WTO. In the words of a developing country Ambassador speaking to IISD last week, “remember, work on gender in the WTO can be a way of bringing labor standards in through the back door. Who knows, perhaps my country would find its imports penalized because we don’t have 50% of women on the boards of all our country’s companies.” She added that there would be no point in the WTO adopting a Declaration if there is no intention to then undertake negotiations on the topic.

Another hypothesis relates to the ambitions for MC12 being revised downwards as MC12 approached.  WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on Sunday that even one or two MC12 outcomes would be a success. In this context, some thought the draft gender Declaration was viewed as less of a priority than other topics, and “sacrificed” so as to allow attention to be focused on the priority issues.

Like many other issues on the international agenda, plans for a Declaration on trade, gender equality, and women’s economic empowerment were affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Federation was one of the early signatories of the planned MC12 Declaration. It had also endorsed the Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment at the time of its adoption in 2017 in the margins of the MC11, held in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

A number of countries have been refusing to discuss any initiatives that involve Russia, and will not participate in informal meetings where Russia is present. Some WTO members even wanted the Russian Federation to be removed from the list of signatories for the proposed trade and gender Declaration to be put forward for adoption at MC12. Sources confirm that the US said it would withdraw its support if Russia’s name remained on the Declaration. The co-chairs feared that other key countries might also withdraw, and that it would bode better for future work on trade and gender to not let things come to the crunch.

Attention to trade and gender at MC12

With topics such as food security, fisheries, a vaccine waiver, and urgently-needed institutional reform claiming most countries’ attention during this Ministerial Conference, the question of gender is not making headlines. In their statements, only a few countries’ ministers referred to WTO work relating to gender. Australia’s Minister for Trade and Tourism stressed the importance of looking ahead to other important areas of the WTO’s work, such as on gender, adding that Australia wants “to progress and expand the work of the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender [and] supports identifying ways to advance gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in trade, and to mainstream gender in Aid-for-Trade activities.”

Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs reiterated Iceland’s commitment to advancing the discussion on trade and gender in the WTO, noting a growing consensus on inclusive trade policies that increase women’s economic empowerment, along with a strong mandate to continue the work of the informal working group in the WTO. Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade noted that “the WTO can help expand economic opportunities for women and mitigate the disproportionate effects of the crises on women and MSMEs.” Norway’s State Secretary expressed the need to strengthen the WTO’s negotiating function so as to better respond to the economic and trade realities of the 21st century, which include women’s economic empowerment.

The Deputy Minister of Economy of Ukraine said his country is interested in reinvigorating multilateral trade negotiations, and also welcomes results of the plurilateral processes, including on trade and gender. “We consider this approach could give an additional impetus to the process of revitalizing multilateral trade negotiations,” he added. Conversely, India’s commerce and industry minister said the WTO should not negotiate on “non-trade-related subjects like climate change and gender, which legitimately fall within the domain of other inter-governmental organisations.”

Trade and gender in the margins of MC12

Following MC12’s opening, the ITC hosted an event on women in trade, focusing on the needs of women in business and on increasing women’s participation in international trade. At this meeting, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called on WTO members to step up work to ensure that trade and trade rules better serve women amid disruptions posed by multiple crises. “A strong and effective WTO is critical for these women, which is one more reason why delivering results at MC12 this week is so important,” she said. “We want to make sure that people know that the WTO is about people. It’s not only about rules – it’s about rules that help people.”

A WTO briefing note on trade and gender prepared in advance of MC12 recalls that trade and trade policy have different impacts on men and women as women can face higher obstacles to economic participation. It notes that over 120 WTO members and the Secretariat are making efforts to incorporate gender issues into the Organization’s work. While the briefing note does quote Okonjo-Iweala saying that “gender equality is a human rights issue,” it otherwise ignores the ways in which trade and trade rules have disproportionate negative impacts on women.

Meanwhile, the Gender and Trade Coalition (GTC), a network of more than 300 women’s rights organizations, addressed an open letter to the WTO Director-General and delegates. The letter reiterates that trade liberalization causes and exacerbates deep structural inequalities that can only be redressed through a total reshaping of WTO agreements. The letter deplores that a group of WTO members are nonetheless pushing for more liberalization, and that discussions around gender are being used as tools to promote further liberalization without allowing for a policy discussion on negative gender impacts of WTO agreements.

The GTC acknowledges that “women’s issues” cannot be separate from any key issues related to trade and that as such, gender issues must not be relegated to one track within the WTO. Moreover, it argues that trade negotiations should more easily allow women and their constituencies from all parts of the world to shape the agenda.

Future shape of WTO work on trade and gender

What does this herald for WTO work on trade and gender going forward? Speaking off the record, a delegate of a country with a strong commitment to gender equality measures in its trade policy said work will continue in the WTO. Sources within the WTO Secretariat confirm this, saying that the absence of a Declaration “will change absolutely nothing.”

Another WTO delegate active in trade and gender work echoes that “it won’t actually change much except that we have to work around one member. We will have to sit down and see how we take the next steps, one step at a time. We expect to continue doing the technical sharing whilst looking at ways to move forwards in smaller groups.” She underlined that the objective is not to create new rules, and as more and more members are reporting on gender-related questions under their Trade Policy Reviews, there is clearly interest in the topic.

The discussions around possible outcomes on trade and gender at MC12 do, however, bring to light the need to engage with the different perspectives to move forward constructively. The key actors must show that they are concerned with more than just women’s labor standards or access to export markets. Within the WTO, a clear commitment must be made to take in a breadth of relevant data and draw on experience – both positive and negative – as a basis for future work.

“Increasingly countries realize that gender responsive trade policies should be based on analysis and data for their good intentions to translate into practice,” observes Simonetta Zarrilli, Chief of UNCTAD’s Trade, Gender and Development Programme.

The WTO and its members need to recognize that gender is a cross-cutting issue, say Erin Hannah, Chair of the Department of Political Science of King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario, and Silke Trommer of the University of Manchester. “The Ministerial Declaration on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment may be off the table for now, but all of the issues currently under negotiation – fisheries subsidies, TRIPS waiver, e-commerce, food security and so on – have gendered dimensions that should be prioritized.”

Read the French version of this policy brief here.

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The MC12 Outcome Document, dated 16 June 2022 and adopted by WTO members, contains a paragraph referring to gender. Its paragraph 13 reads: “We recognize women’s economic empowerment and the contribution of MSMEs to inclusive and sustainable economic growth, acknowledge their different context, challenges and capabilities in countries at different stages of development, and we take note of the WTO, UNCTAD and ITC’s work on these issues.” A footnote to paragraph 13 specifies that “[t]hese are general messages on cross cutting issues that do not change the rights or obligations of WTO Members (and do not relate to any Joint Statement Initiatives).”

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