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Switzerland held to account for cost of tax abuse on women’s rights




In a striking example of the growing movement to bring human rights accountability to tax policy, CESR and its partners have taken Switzerland to task before the UN for the harmful impact of its role as a tax haven on women’s rights.

Following a joint submission and accompanying factsheet on the extra-territorial effects of Swiss-facilitated tax abuse - prepared by CESR with Alliance Sud, the Global Justice Clinic of NYU Law School, Public Eye and Tax Justice Network (TJN) - the UN Committee mandated to oversee compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) expressed concern in late November at the potentially negative impact of Switzerland’s financial secrecy and corporate tax policies on the ability of other states, particularly those already short of revenue, to mobilize the maximum available resources for the fulfilment of women’s rights.

Women in developing countries in particular are hit hardest when wealthy individuals and corporations avoid paying taxes by taking advantage of Switzerland’s financial secrecy regime. As a party to CEDAW, the country – an avowed champion of gender equality – is obliged to avoid fiscal and other public policies that foreseeably undermine women’s rights whether at home or abroad. Directly taking up the measures proposed by CESR and its partners, the CEDAW Committee recommended that Switzerland carry out independent, participatory and periodic impact assessments of the extraterritorial effects of its corporate tax and financial secrecy policies on women’s rights and substantive equality, in a public and impartial manner.

The CEDAW Committee’s engagement with the issue reflects a growing recognition that the human rights community can no longer afford to ignore the pernicious role of cross-border tax abuse in undermining human rights. In the context of the new global sustainable development agenda, there has been much talk about the importance of policy coherence and international cooperation.  But despite growing recognition that financial secrecy and the tax abuse it enables have a profoundly detrimental impact on development in poorer nations, few governments in secrecy jurisdictions have committed to properly examine the effect their tax policies have on human rights beyond their borders.

As part of its efforts to consolidate the conceptual foundations of the emerging collaboration between the tax justice and human rights movements, CESR actively participated in a major conference on Human Rights and Tax in an Unequal World organized by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at NYU School of Law recently. The event brought together leading academics and practitioners from the fields of taxation law, economics and human rights for a groundbreaking dialogue aimed at strengthening mutual understanding and, in turn, the deployment of human rights norms in the field of tax justice.

CESR's Niko Lusiani presented a paper on methods for monitoring the cross-border human rights impacts of corporate tax policies. International human rights law obliges governments to cooperate internationally in order to support each other’s efforts to mobilize resources for the realization of human rights. The effective implementation of such “spillover” impact assessments, as called for in recent international agreements on financing for development, could prove a powerful tool in combatting the pernicious human rights impacts of corporate tax abuse.

These issues were also discussed during a workshop focusing specifically on legal accountability for tax injustice that CESR, CHRGJ and TJN helped organize on the sidelines of the NYU conference. Participants shared lessons learned from past efforts to use human rights accountability mechanisms to challenge tax injustice and brainstormed potential avenues to pursue more effective initiatives in the future. The extra-territorial impacts of tax laws and practices likewise came under the microscope, along with the role of the private sector in facilitating abusive tax practices - an issue CESR also brought to the agenda of the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in November.

In recent months, the tax justice and human rights communities have made significant progress in advancing cross-disciplinary collaboration to confront the problem of tax abuse and the human rights abuse to which it gives rise. While the technical complexities of this endeavor are undoubtedly challenging, collaborative initiatives such as holding Switzerland to answer before CEDAW demonstrate that human rights norms and accountability mechanisms can usefully be brought to bear in the fields of tax policy at both the national and international levels. Together with our partners in the tax justice, development and human rights communities, CESR will continue to push the envelope in furthering conceptual understanding and strategic advocacy across these different fields, so as to unleash the powerful potential of human rights accountability to transform fiscal policy and governance.