Women’s Caucus on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP): Legitimising Inequalities

Following its’ July 2016 meetings in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia the Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN (Women’s Caucus) committed to building the capacity of its members on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other Free Trade Agreements and analyse this from a feminist and women’s human rights perspective. This commitment is grounded on the following: (1) RCEP is an extension of ASEAN’s economic agenda, having emerged from talks of ASEAN+6; (2) Women’s Caucus members represent various grassroots and women’s rights organisations from 11 countries in Southeast Asia who will be impacted by the RCEP; and (3) women’s economic rights is one of five focus areas of the Women’s Caucus.

The RCEP (also known to the Women’s Caucus as ways of Robbing Communities to Extract Profit) joins the many other 21st century mega trade regimes such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that affect marginalised communities in the Asia Pacific. We are alarmed to see from the leaked chapters of RCEP, that ASEAN is negotiating as a bloc on some of the provisions on behalf of its’ member states to the detriment of the most marginalized people in Southeast Asia most of whom are women.  These negotiations have been going on in secret for almost 5 years, violating our right to information.

With the absence of any assessment on RCEP’s impact on human rights, the Women’s Caucus raises its potential harmful impact to women given prevailing systemic and structural inequalities that will be exacerbated should ASEAN Member States sign RCEP.  We anticipate that RCEP will perpetuate this and impact on women’s access to land and resources, livelihood, traditional agricultural knowledge and access to public services. RCEP provisions on seeds and patents pose particular threats to the historical role of rural and indigenous women as caretakers of communities’ seeds and traditional knowledge, by giving more power and prioritizing the interests of corporations. Longer terms for medicines patents will also hinder access to affordable medicines that puts cancer patients and people living with HIV at greater risk and double the burden of their caretakers most of whom are women.

We are also concerned that the corporate powers that push for the RCEP will demand for the swift harmonization of national laws in compliance with RCEP provisions. Similar to other FTAs being negotiated in the region it also contains chapters on the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). This provision asserts investor rights as superior to human rights. It goes beyond domestic law and weakens the government’s capacity to uphold and protect the rights of the people.

When governments legislate in favour of people’s rights ISDS renders them vulnerable to lawsuits from corporations for compensation for potential loss of profit.  As it stands now, several ASEAN member states have or are already facing lawsuits from corporations for enacting legislation for the public interest. Some countries face lawsuits for raising the minimum wage that impact the rights of women workers who as it is already receive poverty wages that push them further into debt in an attempt to cover household expenses. Rural and indigenous women will also further be disenfranchised as greater and tighter control over their lands and resources are given to TNCs and MNCs.

During the NO to RCEP Regional Week of Action the Women’s Caucus through this statement and other country level activities join the growing movement that call on ASEAN and ASEAN Members States not to sign off our rights by signing onto the RCEP. As a network that advocates for the implementation of international human rights standards, what we call for instead is for our governments to:

  • Provide an assessment of RCEP’s impact to human rights and the environment
  • Exercise due diligence in upholding their state obligations to protect human rights and to have our fundamental rights and interests at the centre of RCEP negotiations.
  • Uphold principles of accountability and transparency by providing information to the people especially the most marginalised who will be most impacted by the RCEP.

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