United Nations, Inc.

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

Imagine, as one editorial cartoonist did, the flags encircling the United Nations replaced by corporate banners: the Stars and Stripes by the Nike swoosh, the Union Jack by the Royal Dutch/Shell half clam, Switzerland's cross by the beakerlike logo of Novartis, purveyor of genetically modified foods. That's the nightmare vision of the UN's future for some activists, and one they will try to ward off as the leaders of more than 150 nations gather in New York September 6 to 8 for the UN's "Millennium Summit."

The UN is touting this summit as a historical megagathering—its biggest ever. Strapped for cash and beleaguered by its waning influence in peacekeeping matters, the UN needs this event to boost its standing in a globalized world, one in which multinationals appear to have more power and influence than most of the 180 member nations that make up the UN body. At the summit, leaders will make speeches, attend roundtable discussions, hold off-the-record pow-wows, and attempt to hash out a "a political direction for the UN," as John Ruggie, the assistant secretary general of the UN, puts it. They will be encouraged to ratify more than 500 treaties on subjects ranging from the dangers of land mines to the rights of women. "The backdrop to the summit is globalization," says Ruggie—the very subject that has urged protesters into the streets around the globe.

From September 5 to 8, activists will host the "People's Summit"—which will challenge the UN to "democratize political structures and the international economy" and to use its "guiding hand to bring [corporate-led globalization] under control." Friday's event will include a march and rally, with speakers rumored to include Cuban president Fidel Castro, Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader, and filmmaker/gadfly Michael Moore.

What the S8 activists are most concerned about is whether the UN's decades-old mission to put people over profits is being compromised by the Global Compact, a recent UN partnering with multinational corporations. For many, the UN represents the last great institutional hope, a ready-made antidote to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. When protesters against corporate globalization are asked to offer alternatives, they point to the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights and its Covenant on Economic and Social Rights. These potential solutions already exist, they say, but the UN isn't capable of enforcing them.


In preparation for the UN summit, Secretary General Kofi Annan has asked leaders to commit to reducing and reversing the spread of AIDS by 2010, halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015, and providing basic education to all boys and girls. "Half the world has never received a phone call," says Ruggie. "Poverty eradication is really a top priority."

Of course activists support these goals (many of which have been on the docket before), but some groups have more specific wish lists. Amnesty International wants to see treaties ratified, particularly the "convention against torture" and the "convention on the rights of the child." The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) is urging the UN to continue pushing for core labor standards—the right to unionize, safe working conditions, and the like. That aim would be furthered if the UN were allowed a more active role in the decision-making process of the IMF and World Bank, where it now has only consultative status.

The International Forum on Globalization, a coalition of progressive economists and researchers which hosted a teach-in Tuesday night (September 5) at Town Hall, wants to see the UN coordinate the disparate efforts to put enforceable checks and balances on corporations. The teach-in aimed to offer protesters in the street an ideological platform: specifics, in other words, to help articulate not only what one is against but what one is for. "This is an important step in the evolution of this emerging citizen backlash," says John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies and an organizer of the IFG event. Following the teach-in, the group plans to release a Citizen's Agenda, a plan for an alternative economic system that centers on "the revitalization of local communities." Cavanagh adds: "For the UN to mimic the free-trade model that motivates the WTO, IMF, and World Bank undermines the potential to serve the needs of the global poor."


The UN struggled to keep multinational corporations accountable from the mid '70s through the mid '80s with a recommendation called the "corporate code of conduct," which the U.S. and other industrialized nations vetoed time and again. At the Rio summit in 1992, however, the UN signaled a change in its focus, adopting proposals of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (which is composed of chief executives of big corporations) over those of the UN Center on Transnational Corporations (a department that watchdogged multinationals and was dissolved in 1993 when Kofi Annan came on board). In 1998 the UN disclosed that the International Chamber of Commerce was helping it advise developing countries on trade policy.

This past July, the UN established a "Global Compact"—a partnership between the UN, dozens of multinationals including Nike and Royal Dutch/Shell, a handful of NGOs (Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund among them), and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Annan hatched the idea in January 1999, warning corporations of a backlash if they did not include socially responsible behavior as part of their economic mission.

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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