United Nations, Inc.

As World Leaders Plot the UN’s Future, Activists Warn of Increasing Corporate Influence on Its Agendas

The Global Compact asks that these corporations post information once a year on a Web site to show the progress they've made improving human rights, labor, environmental standards, and so forth. The idea, of course, is that their efforts, or lack thereof, can be criticized by the participating NGOs and labor. The corporations also agree to provide material support for UN operations. Ruggie notes that the Swedish company Ericsson has committed to providing communications equipment to aid workers at disaster sites. In turn, the corporation can use the UN logo to promote these activities.

UN officials see the compact as a way to encourage corporations to be socially responsible. "The transparency and the dialogue are powerful tools," says Ruggie. "If I were a company and I wanted to pull the wool over anybody's eyes I wouldn't do it in this fishbowl." Gemma Adaba, representative of the ICFTU at the United Nations, concurs. "We feel this is an opportunity for constructive dialogue. But it is not a panacea—we will continue to strike against companies that flagrantly violate contracts."

Activists point out that the compact in effect expects corporations to volunteer evidence of their own misdeeds with no legally binding commitment to change—a version of some old-fashioned gentleman's agreement, in which a handshake is tantamount to trust. "Chevron's certainly not going to post when it loads up helicopters with Nigerian soldiers and kills unarmed youths who've taken over an oil rig in protest, as happened in 1998," says Victor Menotti, director of the Environment Program at the International Forum on Globalization. "That ain't gonna be on the Web site."

But the UN believes you have to start somewhere. "What would be the point of working with a company with a perfect history?" says Ruggie. "Isn't [supporting] the desire of a company to move in a different direction our job? On the peace and security side, it's often been said, 'Why are you dealing with so-and-so?' and the secretary general answers, 'You don't make peace with angels.' "

Further complicating the debate is the argument from the other side, that the UN needs to embrace corporations even more. Sandrine Tesner, author of The United Nations and Business: A Partnership Recovered, contends that the UN and business had a good relationship until the Cold War, when nations allied with the Soviet bloc introduced initiatives considered unfriendly to business. Only in the '90s has it been rekindled, she says, "mostly because peacekeeping contracts multiplied from $400 million to $4 billion dollars a year and the UN had to get stuff [money, weapons, supplies] from the private sector."

Tesner staunchly supports partnering with corporations, and says the UN risks irrelevance if it doesn't deal with "the most global of actors." She also thinks corporations cannot thrive without being socially responsible. One of her more radical proposals is that nations share voting power on economic policy with corporations and NGOs. She doubts, however, that the UN will undertake such restructuring—and as a result, she predicts, it will eventually be dissolved.

"It would be a worldwide catastrophe if the UN collapses," says Seydina Senghor, a cofounder of Jubilee 2000 and organizer for the People's Summit. "It is the last refuge for people to seek justice and arbitration."

Critics worry that the Global Compact is a public relations ploy on the part of corporations, and that it is, as Cavanagh puts it, "Kofi Annan's feeble and cynical attempt to diffuse" a year of protests against corporate globalization. Senghor sees Annan "bending to U.S. muscle" too much. The U.S. refuses to pay well over $1 billion in past UN dues. With archconservative Jesse Helms chairing the Senate foreign relations committee (which votes on whether the dues will be paid), a probusiness agenda may warm the U.S.'s corporate heart into paying up. "Annan probably wants to do the right thing," says Menotti, "but he's on a short leash."

The Millennium Summit is not open to the public. Details about the People's Summit can be found at www.peoplessummit.org.

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