The U.N. Sells Out

The Progressive magazine, September 2000


The United Nations has joined hands with big business. And many unlikely groups are clapping.

On July 26, fifty companies signed a "Global

Compact." In it, they promised to end child labor, protect human rights, allow unions to organize, and operate under sound ecological principles in all countries where they do business, even when national laws do not require 'it.

Among the fifty multinationals that made such promises were Nike, Royal Dutch Shell, BP Amoco, BASF, and Rio Tinto, the British-Australian mining company.

Among the watchdog groups that signed the compact were Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

"This Global Compact has the potential to become a historic partnership," Philip Knight, the chairman and chief executive of Nike, told The New York Times.

Infamous may be more like it.

By embracing multinationals, the United Nations has tarnished its reputation and abdicated its role as a protector of human rights. In this day and age when huge companies have more power than many of the countries in which they operate, the United Nations should be establishing itself as a tough, independent monitor. Instead, it's jumped into bed with some of the most notorious companies in the world.

The compact is not legally binding. This means that companies could engage in human rights violations even while benefiting from their connection to the United Nations. According to The New York Times, "Several executives warned that the compact would fail if it became the basis for sanctions."

Secretary General Kofi Annan has been explicit about what he was asking of the multinationals that joined in-not much. "The Global Compact is not a code of conduct," he said in a May speech to Swedish businessmen, "Neither is it a disguised effort to raise minimum standards, not a vehicle for special interest groups. It is a compact to help the markets deliver what they are best at-while at the same time contributing to a more humane world."

Make no mistake: Annan has become a cheerleader for corporations. "Markets offer the only realistic hope of pulling billions of people in developing countries out of abject poverty, while sustaining prosperity in the industrialized world," he said during his "Opening Remarks at the High-Level Meeting on the Global Compact" on July 26.

For the United Nations, the new set-up is attractive for several reasons. "Fueling the partnership initiatives is a new business-friendly ideology at the U.N. and, perhaps more importantly, a desire to curry favor with the United States, the U.N.'s largest funder," said Multinational Monitor in its March issue. "All U.N. officials are keenly aware that support from the United States is predicated upon a friendly stance toward business."

In the past year, Annan has made a series of sales pitches to the international business community.

"As you know, globalization is under intense pressure," he said in a June speech to the American Chamber of Commerce. "And business is in the line of fire, seen by many as not doing enough in the areas of environment, labor standards, and human rights. This may not seem fair, but it is a perception that will not go away unless business is seen to be committed to global corporate citizenship. The Global Compact offers a reasonable way out of this impasse."

That's crass enough. But Annan was even more blunt several months before.

"What, you may be asking yourselves, am I offering in exchange?" he said during his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 31. "Indeed, I believe the United Nations system does have something to offer." He then listed some of the benefits of business association with the United Nations, ending on this note: "More important, perhaps, is what we can do in the political arena, to help make the case for, and maintain an environment which favors, trade and open markets."

That must have been music to their ears.

Meanwhile, the labor and human rights groups that signed on seemed to be under the misapprehension that they could change corporate policy by going along. "We're not in a situation anymore where public opinion, workers, citizens will accept a process saying 'trust me,' " said John Evans, General Secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. "We're in the world of 'show me.' "

Fortunately, many other groups were not taken in by the charade of access. "We are writing again today to express our shock upon learning the identities of the corporate partners for the Global Compact and our disappointment in the Guidelines for Cooperation Between the United Nations and the Business Community," wrote a coalition of nongovernmental organizations to Kofi Annan on July 25. The letter was signed by representatives of such groups as the Brazilian Institute of Economic and Social Analysis, Greenpeace, INFACT, the Institute for Policy Studies, the International NGO Committee on Human Rights in Trade and Investment (based in India), the Third World Network (based in Malaysia), and the Women's Environment and Development Network. "We believe that the Global Compact and related partnerships threaten the mission and integrity of the United Nations." Some of the companies that had joined in the compact, the letter said, "are simply inappropriate for partnerships with the United Nations."

According to the groups, the United Nations' inappropriate partners include: Nike ("an international symbol of sweatshops and corporate greed"); Royal Dutch Shell ("a corporation with a history of complicity in human rights abuses, most infamously in Nigeria"); Rio Tinto ("a British mining corporation which has created so many environment, human rights, and development problems that a global network of trade unions, indigenous peoples, church groups, communities, and activists has emerged to fight its abuses"); BP Amoco (a company that, like Shell, has "sophisticated rhetoric on environmental and social issues," but whose "actions do not measure up"); and Novartis (the pharmaceutical and agribusiness company that "is engaged in an aggressive public relations and regulatory battle to force customers and farmers to accept genetically engineered food without full testing for potential harms and without full access to information,).

The critics also cited a provision in the compact's guidelines allowing businesses that sign on to "use the name and emblem" of the United Nations. "The U.N. logo and the Nike swoosh do not belong together," they said.

The Global Compact is the culmination of a series of recent business deals involving the United Nations and the private sector.

Unocal does business with the military regime that now rules Burma. Human rights activists claim that Unocal's gas pipeline project in that country has used forced labor and created thousands of refugees. Unocal denies the charges.

But the allegations have not seemed to bother the United Nations.

"U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees Sadako Ogata has co-chaired, with Unocal President John Imle, a meeting of the Business Humanitarian Forum, a group founded and headed by a former Unocal vice president," says Multinational Monitor.

Not to be outdone, in April, UNESCO joined with McDonald's and Disney to distribute Youth Millennium Dreamer Awards at Florida's Disney World.

The United Nations is supposed to stand for universal human rights. But it cannot fulfill this role when it allies itself with multinational corporations, which often violate those rights. The Global Compact, by Annan's own admission, cannot enforce good behavior. What it will do, however, is burnish the image of these companies. That is not the proper function of the United Nations.

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