Summary of SRI Conversation 3: Coercion, cooption, and collusion: Global governance under neoliberalism.

This summary contains the essence of our panellists' interventions during our 3rd conversation on the the political economy of sexual rights focusing on coercion, cooption, and collusion: global governance under neoliberalism.

This exciting series of conversations hosted by the Sexual Rights Initiative explore how macroeconomics profoundly affects sexual rights and share ideas on effective strategies to address these challenges within social justice activism, including advocacy in UN human rights spaces. By bringing together a diverse group of activists, scholars, and advocates, this virtual conversation series aims to build cross-movement collaboration and global partnerships.

The political economy of sexual rights: Implications for global advocacy 

Summary of Theme Three: Coercion, cooption, and collusion: Global governance under neoliberalism.  


Pooja Badarinath, Sexual Rights Initiative, Geneva

The claim that human rights are indivisible and universal is under stress and the collusion of western states in grave human rights violations is currently in sharp focus. Yet, the impunity of corporate actors and their state supporters isn’t a new phenomenon; we also saw it in the hoarding of vaccines and medicines.

The unchecked power of corporations, the financialisation of markets, the emergence of private creditors, and the spread of wars for resources and profit have added further complexity to deliberately opaque economic systems such that most people have at best a partial knowledge of the workings of the international economic institutions that profoundly affect, even determine, their ability to live with dignity. In a climate of deliberate obfuscation and duplicity, and the relentless immiseration of entire regions of the world, rights become privileges to be enjoyed by those higher up in extant hierarchies of gender, race / ethnicity, caste and class, and religion.

The intersectional nature of our lives teaches us that our struggles and our oppressions are connected even though the system of global governance, whether economic or human rights, has found ways to keep our concerns and ideas separate. It wants us to break down our lives and our bodies into individual pieces, and never see the interconnectedness or the whole. The global governance system wants us to compete rather than be in solidarity, to be pragmatic rather than radical, to think in individual rather than in collective terms. 


Crystal Simeoni, The NAWI Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective, Nairobi

What’s happening in Palestine and the DRC and Sudan – these are connected oppressions underpinned by questions of power. From a pan-African feminist perspective working on economic justice regionally, we believe in centring decolonial manifestations of states that are not violent towards their own populations, and in pushing back against the narrative that the African state is incapable of providing for her own.

From healthcare to education, to water, to housing, what was a social contract between the state and the citizen is now a contract between state and private finance, which is often from the global North. Public-private partnerships follow the colonial extractive model in the majority world and the tools of extraction are the same whether you’re in Latin America, Africa, or Asia. This corporate capture of the state is systemic and backed by narratives that claim that states are inherently economically inefficient and that the policy issues involved are so complex that ordinary citizens cannot understand them, even though we know that our people, our populations, our mothers, our families know and feel the economy in ways that are very intimate. The disingenuous inference drawn from this is that private corporations operate in the public interest, and what is good for corporations is seen to be self-evidently good for the state and citizens.

The financialisation of everyday life has deepened the link between social reproduction and household debt, trapping people in generational cycles of poverty. Women’s labour produces and sustains life, and households subsidise economies; this gendered oppression continues to reproduce a patriarchal, capitalist, and white supremacist global economy.

Having front-row seats to the genocide of Palestinians reminds us of the plight of people in Sudan and the DRC, who don’t have access to technology in the same way; what hope do we have for any form of justice in these places? What does multilateralism mean when the UN is presented as the most democratic space but we know how veto powers are used and nothing comes of non-binding treaties. Civil society too sometimes gets caught up in the technicalities of the work over the politics and we forget whom we are supposed to be working for and with.

Those who caused and continue to cause the harm cannot be the ones who determine the remedy; this analysis can only be done by us. In practical terms, this means that we work in debt and tax justice movements to push against financialisation. We also have to decolonise our own work by understanding and historicizing neoliberalism and capitalism in order to undo colonialism. Colonial capitalism undermines indigenous ways of knowing and we resist it by oscillating between the technical and the colloquial, and we resist in collectives. Across Africa, women have saving circles, which are real-life manifestations of social solidarity economics.

We have to nurture our ability to dream, to unshackle ourselves from our current reality and to be audacious enough to dream of new models, new systems, and new governance. Resistance also means refocusing the struggle. We cannot keep fighting simply in order to survive; our struggles are meaningless and certainly not revolutionary if they don't offer a serious possibility to thrive as human beings.

Most interventions around women’s economic empowerment in Africa are micro-level projects – financial inclusion, microcredit, and other individually targeted interventions that can only go so far. Even with these individualised interventions, women still need access to education for their children, public transport options, and healthcare. For this we need an African feminist analysis of these issues at the macro and systemic level and to develop alternatives through focusing on interlocking oppressions and the politics of everyday life. We pay attention to the prevalence of violence in the lives of African women and work to redefine macroeconomic policies from a pan-African lens rooted in indigenous history and knowledge, to democratise and decentralise economic decision making, and to centre equality, wellbeing, and sustainability as the objective of economic activity. We work hard to decolonise knowledge production by centring cultural work that shapes and transforms macro-level economic narratives. We centre the role of social reproduction in all the work we do and seek to link social justice movements, including women’s rights organisations, to organisations working on macro-level economic issues and towards a cross-pollination. 


Wesam Ahmed, Al-Haq Centre for Applied International Law, Ramallah

Imperialism is a macro-level issue and we tend to get lost in the details – right now, in the details of the developing genocide in Gaza.It’s important to understand what got us to this point in Palestine. The connection between neoliberal economics and settler colonialism is necessary to put the process of colonisation in the broader context of geopolitical and economic interests that are fuelling the ongoing colonisation of Palestine.

A 1925 document on colonising Palestine asks, “What medium should be employed to colonise a country on a large scale: should it be done by philanthropy or treated as a business proposition along strict business lines?” There’s a clear connection between imperial interests, financial enterprises, and their impact on the indigenous population.

When the British Mandate took over Palestine, it was keen to merge its imperial interests with the Zionist project and, despite the development of international law, The Israel Corporation, a modern-day crown charter company, was formed in 1968, immediately after the occupation of Palestinian territory. The uniqueness of this company lies in the ways in which it intersected with hegemonic neoliberal economics and institutional human rights, which are now perhaps seen as part of neoliberalism in how it compartmentalises rights, which presents challenges when we try to use the UN system.

The complexity of the ongoing colonisation of Palestine requires us to understand the architecture of exploitation; the Israeli economic system of colonisation (from weapons and surveillance technology to chemicals, agriculture, insurance, cosmetics, and energy) nests under the roof created by global power relations, the international political economy, and international law, and is supported by external pillars of support (military aid, charity, trade, and investment) and internal pillars of exploitation of Palestinian resources and people.

The present situation in Gaza is a continuation of past resource exploitation; a hundred years ago it was oil and today it’s natural gas. New trade and canal routes are being proposed, both of which go through the north of Gaza. The projects of neoliberalism and settler colonialism are based on the concept of economic absorptive capacity; the potential to absorb settlers requires economic viability and corporations play a major role in ensuring this capacity.

The indigenous population always pays the price for these economic endeavours rooted in colonialism, and today we’re seeing its modern face. The disappointment now is that it’s happening in front of our eyes and it’s unmasked the underlying imperial dimensions of international law, which is either complicit with imperialism or, when it isn’t, is ignored in favour of geopolitical economic interests, and we see it exposed in the Palestinian context. However, this presents an opportunity to re-evaluate how far we have come and how much we allow each other to suffer for imperial interests. This watershed moment could force us to shift away from an imperial mindset to embrace solidarity in many areas, including climate change and individual rights.

Whether and how to engage with the UN system is a key question right now. The institutionalisation of human rights within the umbrella of the UN in the context of decolonisation sent the message that those seeking self-determination need to come off the streets and into offices, stop reading manifestos and become lawyers. Doing that didn’t stop us from being labelled terrorists. We are at a juncture in history when new ideas can emerge, even though neoliberalism tries to prevent us from imagining a different reality.

We have to try to force change at the UN from within but not exclusively. Long-term solidarity with Palestinians requires continuing to undertake advocacy, engagement in policy, education, within the framework of international law. If we want to give the spirit of the law meaning, we have to push for its application and not give in to the frustration because otherwise, the process will continue without resistance. The UN offers space to engage with a multitude of stakeholders and states, which is an important tool. We have to recognise our place in the system and the power of the individual; if everyone is pushing towards the same goal, eventually, the system will change. 


Gonzalo Berron, Transnational Institute, Brazil

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the coup against Salvador Allende and the fifty-first of the speech he gave at the UN in which he denounced the power of corporations in society and politics. He was forecasting what was about to happen in Chile and opening a debate on the role of multinational corporations in the modern capitalist world. Economic power has always been structured into social relationships but what was important was the relationship between corporate power, the global economy, and politics.

Following Allende’s speech there was an agreement to set up a multinational centre within UNCTAD to monitor the activities of transnational corporations and their role in public policy. This worked temporarily but it didn’t generate policies to regulate corporate power. Then came neoliberalism and the horizon of transnational corporations expanded through the Washington Consensus whose agenda was to amplify markets and offer benefits to international investment. This materialised in the creation of the WTO, and several internal, bilateral, and multilateral agreements led to the first type of corporate capture. The WTO transformed from an organisation regulating standards of international trade to one pushing free trade and establishing norms and rules to guarantee international investments.

This generated an architecture of impunity and gave rights to investors and companies against human rights and social rights, and eventually became the macro-structure that was consolidated in the 1990s and developed in the 2000s. There was global social resistance against neoliberal globalisation and, in some places, it managed to slow down the process.

In the 1980s and 1990s, different initiatives to regulate transnational corporations failed. There was some ‘soft’ law that wasn’t legally binding and was a form of greenwashing. Companies committed to some rights in the late 1990s, including environmental rights, but the same companies that were committing terrible crimes were being considered champions of international standards. In the 2010s, the UN guiding principles on human rights for companies provided another set of rules that were not legally binding and then we reached the legally binding treaty that is being discussed now and which transnational corporations have tried to block.

Corporate capture can happen through corporations lobbying the state or they may influence political agendas through donations made directly or through their proxies, philanthropic organisations. This is evident in many UN spaces; for example, the private sector has been made responsible for the implementation of the SDGs. This means that billions of dollars of state funds will be given to companies in the name of the SDGs. This generates spaces for new business opportunities. The multistakeholder nature of covax allowed some private corporations to function at the same level as states. 

We are in the multilateral system because of a concrete problem – the violation of human rights by transnational corporations in Latin America, which were systematic and global. The real problem, we realised, was the lack of international human rights law. The social movements and affected communities went to the Human Rights Council to expose the violations (and the complicity of their states in them) but also the lack of an international regulatory framework. Doing this, we realised there was also a structural problem – the corporate capture of the multilateral system. There is a clear connection between what is decided in multilateral spaces and the reality on the ground. The global governance system includes multistakeholderism, which delocates policy and decision making from the multilateral system, with states leading the process, to the private sector. The effects of multistakeholderism, which is one form of corporate capture, are most starkly felt in developing countries because they leave very little room for states to make autonomous decisions. 


Dipika Nath, independent researcher, South Africa

In material terms, women and their labour continue to be exploited in specifically gendered ways in neoliberal capitalism, and gender and sexual rights continue to be denied and even decried because of naturalised gender and sexual roles.

In structural terms, the post-WWII macroeconomic system has mostly privileged countries in the global North and created small pockets of elites in the global South, and this has had a direct impact on marginalised bodies of all stripes. Women bear the brunt of structural adjustment policies in the global South, as the focus shifts from structural inequality to individual rights. The shock therapy forced upon southern countries by international monetary institutions and the financialisation of the economy lead to unparalleled inequality, and resistance movements have also struggled.    

In terms of organising, the simultaneous ascendance of neoliberal ideologies and human rights has had an impact on how we think about rights and entitlements. However, civil and political rights divorced from economic rights only lead to fractures nationally and internationally, as evident in the case of sexual and reproductive healthcare. There are global governance systems with real teeth, such as trade treaties and coercive economic systems, and others, such as the human rights system, that seem to be deliberately constructed as a feel-good exercise. The western predilection for fragmentation shows itself in the form of neatly divided movements and discourses and LGBT rights are one telling instance of this division. Funding and donor priorities too follow this logic of division and identity politics.

In the realm of discourse and ideology, the global economic system is protected from and made inaccessible to everyone but appropriately trained experts from around the world, who become the agents of neoliberal systems in the global South. Neoliberal ideology finds its way into our habits of thought and conditions us to consider all relationships as transactional and competitive and to view all resources as scarce when it is precisely the plenitude in the global South that kicked off five hundred years of colonialism.

The ascendance of identity politics means that status or representation rights are considered to be the end of oppression, but this vision of progress is maintained through considerable ideological and economic coercion. The obscurity of the global economic system attempts to shield from view the duplicitous nature of western states who champion human rights even as their economic policies render the realisation of these rights impossible. Extraction and exploitation continue through trade and the unchecked power of corporations.

However, the complicity and active participation of local elites in the global South in the project of capitalist, patriarchal, and racist exploitation alerts us to the impossibility of neat geographical divisions between coloniser and colonised. Further, even colonialism is no longer racially coherent, as leaders in the global South prove themselves to be capable of colonialist logics just as well as traditional colonisers are.

The codependent relationship between capitalism and patriarchy sometimes results in tensions; for example, for all its privileging of economic rationality, capitalism isn’t ever comfortable with sex work because it posits serious questions about the relationship between gender and the patriarchal economy. 



  • Can sexual and human rights be delinked from capitalism?
  • Is cross-movement solidarity enough to challenge the capitalist logics of individual rights? 
  • Do human rights need to be joined with socialism in order to deliver on their promise? 
  • How do we resist the downside of NGOisation while insisting on collective imagining and action?