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
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
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
"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
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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