Will multinational corporations take over the UN?

Published: Sunday 15 October 2000

For many developing countries, the un represents half a chance at fair play in an increasingly globalised world. Many see it as their only chance of countering the World Trade Organisation's obsession with free trade. Many of them prefer to strengthen the un rather than create an altogether new World Environment Organisation to protect their local environment and the rights of their indigenous communities from a trade organisation that only recognises the might of multinational corporations. This trust seems misplaced.

Corporations influence almost every negotiation on the environment that has taken place under the aegis of the un -- including the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, the Kyoto Protocol to the climate convention, and the biodiversity convention and its Biosafety Protocol. Industrialised country governments have unashamedly acted as proxy for their industries, representing business interests. In the climate convention, even the unep and unctad have offered their service as brokers for corporations interested in emissions trading. Similarly, tobacco companies have worked for years to undermine who 's tobacco control initiatives. These corporations' own documents show that they viewed who as one of their main enemies and that they attempted to influence who and other un agencies, along with representatives of developing countries, to resist tobacco control efforts.

Now the un wants to forgive and sign a 'Global Compact' with these very same multinationals, and invite individual corporations into a "partnership". The compact, launched with unep , ilo , and unhcr this summer, consists of a set of voluntary ethical guidelines drawn from un declarations and conventions. If companies agree to these guidelines in principle (there is no monitoring), they get to use the un logo in their advertising, and the "cash-strapped" un gets new financial partners.

Secretary General Kofi Annan sees the compact as a way of closing the widening disparity between rich and poor caused by globalisation, and has encouraged all un agencies to form partnerships with the private sector. But many others see this as the commercialisation of the un . Ironically, this move comes at a time when even the most ardent supporters of free trade have begun to admit that globalisation is not the answer to poverty. What is needed instead in empowerment of the poor, as the World Bank has finally acknowledged in its World Development Report, 2000.

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