CEDAW calls Switzerland to account for effects of its tax policies on women’s rights

The UN’s top women’s rights body, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, this past week made tax justice a women’s rights issue in its recommendations to renowned financial secrecy jurisdiction, Switzerland. Prompted by a coalition report and factsheet co-authored by the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and partner organizations, the Committee called upon Switzerland to assess the impacts of its financial secrecy and corporate tax policies on women’s rights abroad.

In its final report on Switzerland’s compliance with the CEDAW Convention, the Committee expressed concern about how the State’s current laws and policies on banking secrecy and corporate taxation adversely affect the ability of other governments, especially in developing countries, to mobilize the maximum available resources for the fulfillment of women’s rights. Switzerland, which ranks as the number one country for financial secrecy, plays an outsized role in preventing other governments from upholding their obligations under CEDAW and other human rights treaties. A coalition of human rights and tax justice advocates that brought this issue before the Committee—comprised of Alliance Sud, the Berne Declaration, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, the Global Justice Clinic, and the Tax Justice Network—warmly welcomed the Committee’s recommendation that Switzerland “undertake independent, participatory and periodic impact assessments of the extraterritorial effects of its financial secrecy and corporate tax policies on women’s rights and substantive equality.” Global Justice Clinic student, Lauren Flanagan, stated that “the Committee’s engagement with these issues represents an essential step toward ensuring that States are held accountable for the effects of their taxation policies on human rights beyond their own borders.”

As explained in the coalition factsheet and submission, taxation remains the most significant and reliable source of public revenue for States around the world. Each year, however, governments lose hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue as a result of corporations and wealthy individuals shifting their profits and assets to financial secrecy jurisdictions where they are taxed at low rates or not at all. Substantial revenue losses lead to budget shortfalls, which impede government efforts to fulfill human rights. When a state is unable to close the budget deficit, it is often women who feel the pinch the most. Cuts to essential services like healthcare and education exacerbate the feminization of poverty and further confine women to caregiving roles—phenomena which represent a major roadblock to achieving substantive equality.

CEDAW’s recommendations to Switzerland come at a time when there is growing momentum across human rights institutions and within civil society movements to address tax as a human rights issue. In June 2016 the UN Committee that presides over economic, social and cultural rights called on the UK to address the human rights impacts of its financial secrecy policies, while in May 2016 the UN Committee on children’s rights recognized the importance of combating tax evasion as a way to mobilize resources for fulfilling children’s rights.  These developments also coincide with the growth of activism in opposition to abusive tax practices. A recent sit-in at a branch of BNP Paribas in protest against the bank’s involvement in offshore secrecy accounts held by French elites highlighted citizen concern over the social costs of enabling corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid paying their fair share.

Co-instructor of the Global Justice Clinic, Nikki Reisch, applauded “the emerging consensus that abusive tax practices and policies must be met with a zero-tolerance policy in order to truly vindicate human rights and to meet the targets laid down in the Sustainable Development Goals.”  She added that “the Clinic recognizes the importance for both women’s rights and human rights more broadly, of continuing to build international pressure to combat tax abuses, and therefore remains committed to supporting research and advocacy efforts in the area of tax and human rights.”