As the demands for tax justice mount in the wake of the Panama Papers leak, the UN’s leading expert body on women’s rights prepares to take on the issue of global tax abuse. The Global Justice Clinic (GJC), working closely with the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and coalition partners, has successfully convinced the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to examine the impact of international tax abuse on human rights during the Committee’s review of Switzerland at its 65th Session this October. This marks the first time that a human rights treaty body has expressly addressed cross-border tax abuses and the State policies that enable them. The Committee’s List of issues for the upcoming review, released in late March, asks Switzerland to “provide information on the measures taken to ensure that the State party’s tax and financial secrecy policy does not contribute to largescale tax abuse in foreign countries, thereby negatively impacting on resources available to realize women’s rights in those countries.”
From March 7th to 11th, the CEDAW Committee met in Geneva to determine which issues it would ask Switzerland to address when it reports on the State’s compliance with its legal commitments to gender equality and women’s rights this fall. A team from the GJC traveled to Geneva to urge Committee members to consider the role that Switzerland plays in facilitating tax abuses around the world, and the impacts that these abuses have on women’s rights globally, particularly in developing countries, due to the loss of tax revenues and entrenchment of inequalities. The GJC team’s advocacy in Geneva was the product of collaboration with CESR, the Tax Justice Network, and the Berne Declaration, who co-authored a written submission to the Committee for the March pre-sessional meeting.
The CEDAW Committee’s review of Switzerland is particularly timely in light of the Panama Papers, which link a number of world leaders and corporations to secretive, off-shore accounts located in tax havens and expose the vast system that has been built to facilitate tax avoidance by the wealthy and the powerful. As those leaked documents show, Switzerland is not the only tax haven whose policies have negative effects beyond its borders. Indeed, the lax financial regulations and tax laws in many countries allow tax avoidance. Nonetheless, as the Clinic team noted in its oral statement to the CEDAW Committee, Switzerland remains one of the world’s leading financial secrecy jurisdictions, and as such it “plays an outsized role in facilitating large-scale cross-border tax abuse that deprives other States of the public resources needed to fulfill women’s human rights and promote their substantive equality.”
Following the leak of the Panama Papers, the UN Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky issued a statement decrying tax evasion, which “shrinks the fiscal space for investing in public health care, education, social security and other public goods and services,” and calling on States to “make public disclosure of beneficial ownership information legally binding in all countries” and “move to a global system of automatic exchange of tax information which ensures that developing countries can benefit from it on an equal footing.” Together with its partners, the Clinic team is continuing its advocacy efforts on these issues in the lead up to Switzerland’s review before CEDAW in October. At that session, the coalition plans to submit additional evidence of the negative effects of Switzerland’s tax and financial secrecy policies on women around the world.