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Switzerland rightly prides itself as a champion of women’s rights and gender equality internationally. Yet, as the world's most significant tax haven, the Alpine nation may be undermining these very values.

Women’s rights require financial resources. Budget constraints in countries around the world have resulted in chronic under-funding of key institutions and programs that are crucial for gender equality and women’s rights, including education, healthcare, childcare and eldercare. When governments lack the funds to provide these services, it is women who are left to fill the unpaid care and revenue gaps which result.

Cross-border tax abuse is among the principal causes of this persistent dearth of public revenue, especially in low-income countries. When wealthy individuals and multinational companies reduce or avoid their tax payments in one jurisdiction through the use of favorable banking and tax laws or lax corporate regulations in another jurisdiction, it is women in poorer countries who often suffer.

Cross-border tax abuse—while committed by private actors—could not happen without the aid of particular states, including Switzerland which is ranked first in the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index.

In 2016, CESR and our partners have led an initiative to seek accountability at the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) for the pernicious impacts of Swiss financial secrecy on women’s rights and gender equality in developing countries. A new factsheet and joint submission – the fruit of a collaboration between CESR, Alliance Sud, the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, Public Eye and the Tax Justice Network – shows how this tax haven in particular is undermining human rights beyond its borders.

As explained in the submission, Switzerland’s obligations under both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights require it to ensure its laws and policies do not impede the realization of women’s rights and substantive equality. The government is also obliged to take steps to protect against private sector behavior that undermines women’s rights beyond its borders – including through regulation of its banking and finance sectors – and to promote international cooperation with the aim of mobilizing the maximum of available resources for the fulfillment of women’s rights.

In doing so, the document also sets out critical policy safeguards — such as impact assessments, exchange of taxpayer information, country-by-country corporate tax reporting and whistleblower protections — which Switzerland should put in place to prevent such abuse and to mitigate its harmful human rights impacts.

This pioneering initiative comes at a time of increasing concern – among both the international community, global civil society and human rights treaty bodies – over the deliterious impacts of cross-border tax abuse on both human rights and economic sustainability. Widespread and systemic tax abuse and avoidance is also a key driver of socio-economic inequality, which has now reached historic levels and presents a major threat to the full spectrum of human rights.

By calling the world’s leading tax haven to account for its role in depriving developing countries of the resources they need to ensure women’s substantive equality, CESR and its partners have taken a critical step towards addressing one of the most pervasive and structural sources of gender discrimination worldwide. This process will also help deepen the international human rights system’s engagement with cross-border tax abuse as a structural impediment to the realization of human rights, and thereby advance normative standards and substantive understanding of the role human rights law can and must play in this regard.

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