The UN's growing alliance with multinational
by Danielle Knight
Dollars and Sense magazine, July / August 2000
Some strange bedfellows met up last May at Florida's Walt
Disney World Resort. The United Nations Educational, Scientific,
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) teamed up with Disney and McDonald's
to present the "Millennium Dreamer" prize- touted as
the "most prestigious" youth award of its kind-to 2,000
young people worldwide who have made a "significant and positive
impact on their communities."
Prize winners probably didn't include children who wrote letters
to Disney as part of a campaign against deplorable labor conditions
at the multinational's subcontractors in Haiti, Indonesia, and
China. And it's doubtful that any one of the "Millennium
Dreamers" attempted to "make a difference" by protesting
against the World Trade Organization last year outside a Seattle
Some human-rights and environmental activists worry that the
youth prizes are symbolic of a fundamental shift taking place
at the United Nations-towards "new partnerships" between
the institution and multinational corporations. From Malaysia
to Zimbabwe, non-governmental organizations say that UN agencies
have fallen into alliances that boost the public images of huge
international companies, while threatening UN efforts on human
rights, labor standards, health, and ecological protection.
Many United Nations agencies could act as counterbalances
to growing corporate dominance. The International Labor Organization
(ILO) formulates international labor standards. It supports freedom
of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively,
the abolition of forced labor, and equality of opportunity and
treatment. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) proclaims
the goals of "employment creation and sustainable livelihoods,
the empowerment of women and the protection and regeneration of
the environment, giving first priority to poverty eradication."
UNESCO has, through its World Heritage Sites program, helped protect
threatened natural parks and historical sites. In Australia, aboriginal-rights
activists have used the World Heritage Site status of Kakadu Park
to pressure for the expulsion of uranium mining companies from
the area. Finally, the UN once included a special body, the Center
on Transnational Corporations, to monitor global companies' environmental
and social impact. It was created in the 1970s at the behest of
developing nations. While it was never very radical, its efforts
were still seen as a potential threat to the ideology of corporate
self-regulation. It was shut down in the early 1990s, reportedly
due to business pressure.
According to environmental and human-rights groups, the critical
role of such agencies is threatened by the UN's new emphasis on
corporate "partnerships." Last year, Secretary-General
Kofi Annan set the stage for the new orientation by calling on
CEOs to join a "Global Compact" with the UN. He challenged
business leaders to enact nine principles derived from UN agreements
on labor standards, human rights, and environmental protection.
"What we have to do is find away of embedding the global
market in a network of shared values," Annan said at the
World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of finance ministers and
CEOs, in January 1999. The Secretary-General said the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights, the ILO, and the UN Environment
Programme (UNEP) "stand ready to assist" corporations
that wish to incorporate these principles into their missions
and company practices. He reiterated the plea in a speech before
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in June 1999: "A fundamental
shift has occurred in recent years in the attitude of the United
Nations towards the private sector. Confrontation has taken a
back seat to cooperation. Polemics have given way to partnerships."
Human-rights groups can hardly complain about UN efforts to
get companies to act more responsibly. But Joshua Karliner, director
of the Transnational Resource Action Center, a San Francisco-based
corporate watchdog organization, says that while corporations
gain a valuable public-image boost by wrapping themselves in the
UN flag, they make no commitments to adjust their behavior to
reflect the institution's principles. "The quid pro quo of
this overarching UN policy is that if corporations voluntarily
accept these human rights, labor and environmental standards,
the UN will... increase its support for their globalization agenda,"
says Karliner. "And there is a huge contradiction there,
because in fact the globalization agenda is what is driving the
exacerbation of a lot of these problems."
ADJUSTING TO THE REALITY OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
Facing a funding crisis as billions of dollars in back dues
remain unpaid-largely by the United States-the UN has tried to
attract financial support from the private sector. In his speech
to the Chamber of Commerce, Annan asked business leaders to lobby
Congress to pay the dues. But the UN is not only asking for corporate
help to restore government funding. It is also seeking direct
corporate aid on an unprecedented scale.
Last year, the UNDP invited major companies to contribute
$50,000 to its Global Sustainable Development Facility (GSDF).
At the time, then-UNDP Administrator James Gustave Speth argued
that the project would channel corporate money to sustainable-development
initiatives worldwide. "This global initiative is central
to our effort to engage in the corporate sector," he wrote.
The GSDF is now headed by a steering committee that includes Asea
Brown Boveri (the Swiss-Swedish firm targeted by environmental
groups for its involvement in China's controversial Three Gorges
Dam) and Dow Chemical (a producer of toxic substances including
According to the UNDP, 16 corporations had formally committed
to the GSDF project by February 1999. Four other companies were
considering the proposal. Royal Dutch Shell, notorious for its
links to a brutal military dictatorship in Nigeria, was one of
them. The UNDP also invited oil giant BP Amoco, criticized by
Greenpeace for its drilling projects in the Arctic and its efforts
to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil
exploration. Nine experts on economic development-including Karliner,
Walden Bello of Thailand's Focus on the Global South, and Mohammed
Idris of the Malaysia-based Third World Network-wrote Speth asking
him to call off the project. They warned that the companies were
using the GSDF as an opportunity to "greenwash" their
public images. As word got out about the GSDF, officials within
the United Nations also voiced concern. In an April 1999 speech,
UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Carol Bellamy urged
caution in dealings with big business. "It is dangerous to
assume that the goals of the private sector are somehow synonymous
with those of the United Nations," she argued, "because
they most emphatically are not."
As a result of the controversy, the GSDF is now on the back
burner, according to Sid Kane, a spokesperson at the UNDP. Meanwhile,
however, UN-corporate allegiances have popped up at other UN agencies.
BUSINESS HUMANITARIAN FORUM
The UN has a special agency, the Business Humanitarian Forum
(BHF), to encourage dialogue between relief organizations and
corporations, and to gain business support for humanitarian projects.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Sadako Ogata and Union
Oil of California (UNOCAL) Vice Chairman John Imle co-chair the
BHF. The Forum includes energy giant Enron, which has been linked
to human-rights violations in India, and the presidents of CARE
and Interaction, two major humanitarian aid agencies.
EarthRights International and the Free Burma Coalition are
two of the NGOs asking how the UNHCR, of all UN agencies, could
join hands with UNOCAL. The oil company does profitable business
in Burma, whose military dictatorship has sent a wave of refugees
to neighboring Thailand, according to rights groups. "How
ironic and disturbing that UNHCR would associate with a company
whose behavior is so antithetical to the mission of helping refugees,"
said a statement released by the groups outside the last conference
of the BHF, held in Washington, D.C., in November.
Human-rights activists regard UNOCAL as a pariah company for
its Yadana gas pipeline project, built with the aid of Burma's
military junta, and for its now-suspended efforts to conclude
gas deals with Afghanistan's Taliban regime. Ka Hsaw Wa, an award-winning
Burmese activist who now directs EarthRights International, has
documented thousands of cases of forced labor, execution, rape,
and confiscation of property carried out by the Burmese military
in support of the Yadana project, operated by a consortium including
UNOCAL and the French company Total. The consortium has contracted
with the Burmese army to provide security for the project. "It's
discouraging to find respected UN agencies sharing the podium
with companies like UNOCAL," Ka Hsaw Wa says, "especially
to those of us who are fighting everyday against their human-rights
Last October, EarthRights International and the Free Burma
Coalition wrote to High Commissioner Ogata asking her to resign
from the Forum. But the UN agency argued that the private sector
has a major role to play in post-conflict reconstruction. "In
this era of globalization, humanitarian issues cannot be addressed
in a vacuum," said UNHCR spokesman John Horekins. "Entering
into a dialogue with corporations, including the give and take
of positive criticism when required, will produce better results
than reinforced positions of mutual isolation."
At this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland-one
year after Annan announced the Global Compact-an international
coalition of non-governmental organizations proposed a "Citizens
Compact." Signatories include the Third World Network, Washington's
Institute for Policy Studies, Zimbabwe's International South Group
Network, India's International Group for Grassroots Initiatives,
and John Sellers of the Ruckus Society, which organized protests
against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last year. The
alternative compact outlines nine principles aiming to "safeguard
the image, mission and credibility of the United Nations as it
deals with the private sector." While the UN should help
companies improve their human rights and environmental records,
the Citizens Compact states, this should not be seen as a "partnership."
Before working with a corporation, the UN should "thoroughly
evaluate whether the objectives of that company are compatible
with those of the United Nations." The UN should not "endorse
or promote products or brand names of any private corporation."
Perhaps most importantly, corporations should not govern themselves
though "voluntary and self-generated standards," as
Annan's Global Compact would permit. Instead, as the Citizens
Compact argues, "A legal framework, including monitoring,
must be developed to govern their behavior on the world stage."
The more the United Nations aligns itself with the private sector,
the less it is going to be able to act as a countervailing force
to the corporate-driven globalization agenda, say the signers.
Public opposition to corporate-dominated globalization is on the
increase. The United Nations, argues Kenny Bruno of the California-based
Transnational Resource and Action Center (TRAC), could provide
the framework of global governance necessary to hold today's globetrotting
corporations in check. "The United Nations is our best hope
to monitor and hold accountable the giant companies that control
so much of our economies and our lives," he says. If that
vision is to become a reality, however, opponents of corporate
globalization must put the brakes on the UN's "new partnership"
with these same corporations-and fast.
Danielle Knight is a journalist in Washington, D.C., for Inter
Press Service, an international newswire.
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