UN Corporate Partnerships (11/00)

Transnational Resource & Action Center, September 2000

Executive Summary

Secretary General Kofi Annan has encouraged all UN agencies to form partnerships with the private sector. The centerpiece of this initiative is his Global Compact, launched with the agencies for environment (UNEP), labor (ILO) and human rights (UNHCHR) in July, 2000. This report argues that corporate influence at the UN is already too great, and that new partnerships are leading down a slippery slope toward the partial privatization and commercialization of the UN system itself.  The Secretary General’s office and UN agencies such as UNICEF, UNDP, WHO, and UNESCO are partnering with corporations known for human, labor and environmental rights violations.  The Global Compact and its cousin partnerships at other UN agencies threaten the mission and integrity of the United Nations.

The Global Compact

The Global Compact has four major problems:

1.Wrong Companies: The Secretary General has shown poor judgment by allowing known human rights, labor and environmental violators to join. 

2.Wrong Relationship: Clearly the UN must have interactions with corporations, as when they procure goods and services or to hold them accountable, but it should not aspire to "partnership." 

3.Wrong Image: The UN’s positive image is vulnerable to being sullied by corporate criminals, while companies get a chance to "bluewash" their image by wrapping themselves in the flag of the United Nations. 

4.No Monitoring or Enforcement: Companies that sign-up get to declare their allegiance to UN principles without making a commitment to follow them.

The New Guidelines

The new guidelines for UN cooperation with corporations state that companies that violate human rights "are not eligible for partnership."  Mr. Annan violated the guidelines just a few days after they were published by inviting Shell to join the Global Compact and its envisaged partnerships. The UN claims that it lacks the capacity to monitor corporations’ activities. This creates a Catch-22 situation. Without monitoring capacity the UN will not be able to determine, under its guidelines, if a corporation is complicit in human rights violations.  The Guidelines also provide for the limited corporate use of the UN logo. This presents a potential marketing bonanza for companies like Nike.

Toward a Corporate Free UN

If the Global Compact and other corporate partnerships represent the low-road, then there are four key steps that can be taken to build a high-road.

1.Support the Code of Conduct on transnational corporations and human rights being drafted by the UN Subcomission on Human Rights. 

2.Support UN-brokered multilateral environmental and health agreements which can reign in abusive corporate behavior on a global scale. 

3.Pressure the US government to pay the UN the money it owes with no strings attached. 

4.Support and promote The Citizens Compact, which calls for a legally binding framework for corporate behavior.


As we move into a new millennium, "We The Peoples" of the United Nations are asking a momentous question: Will corporations rule the world or will they be subordinated by governments and civil society to the universal values of human rights, labor rights and environmental rights?

Or, to ask it another way, do the Nike swoosh and the UN olive branch emblem belong together? Are McDonald’s and Disney companies that represent universal educational and cultural values? Do giant oil companies like Shell, BP and Chevron hold the keys to sustainable development?

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan thinks the answers might be yes, and he is leading a major effort to form partnerships between the United Nations and the business community. The "business community," in this case, does not mean the small and medium sized companies that still maintain some loyalty to the local community. It is made up of the giant transnational corporations-companies that have deepened their enormous power through the process of economic  globalization. Many of them have been targets of protest in Seattle, Washington DC, Bangkok, and dozens of other cities.

Mr. Annan has said that "in a world of common challenges, the UN and business are finding common ground" and that "confrontation has been replaced by cooperation and joint ventures." The Secretary General has encouraged all UN agencies to form partnerships with the private sector. These are some of the same UN agencies which NGOs and citizen movements respect for their dedication to UN values. They include those dealing with the environment (UNEP), labor standards (ILO), refugees (OHCHR), sustainable human development (UNDP), children (UNICEF), public health (WHO), industrialization (UNIDO), and science, education and culture (UNESCO) (see UN-Corporate Partnerships Chart).

Mr. Annan has personally spearheaded the highest profile of these partnerships, the Global Compact. On July 26th, eighteen months after he floated the concept in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Annan appeared with representatives of some fifty corporations and a handful of non-governmental partners to officially launch the Compact in New York.

Many long-term supporters of the UN who care deeply about the institution and the values it represents, were not there. Many believe that the UN is the only international organization with the potential to provide some democratic control over corporations. The UN could be a counterbalance to the destructive force of the WTO and corporate globalization. But as an alliance of groups wrote to Mr. Annan in July, the Global Compact and its cousin partnerships at other UN agencies "threaten the mission and integrity of the United Nations." Corporate influence at the UN is already too great, and the new partnerships are leading down a slippery slope toward privatization and commercialization of the UN system itself.

As an alternative to the Global Compact, an alliance of groups has invited the Secretary General to join a "Citizens Compact" on the UN and corporations. (See Appendix B) This alliance has opposed the Global Compact, the UNDP’s Global Sustainable Development Facility and several other partnerships.

In early 1999, Kofi Annan warned of a "backlash" against the "global market." The events of Seattle, Washington and elsewhere show that a backlash against corporate globalization is in full swing, and that citizens movements are determined to overthrow corporate rule. It would be a tragedy if the UN allowed itself to become a target of the backlash by allying itself with corporate and commercial values. UN values of peace, democracy, human rights, labor, environment and health are more popular-and more globalized-than ever. The UN must maintain its unique dedication to these values, as its Charter demands.

Complete document http://www.igc.org/trac/globalization/un/tangled.html 

Thanks to Debi Barker, Beth Handman, Miloon Kothari, Julie Light, Alison Linnecar, Mele Smith, Elisabeth Sterken