Pity the United Nations, for it is not powerful enough even to be hated.
While other global bodies are widely reviled, the UN has become little more
than a joke.
Ignored and undermined, its treaties unratified, its fees unpaid, the
sometime saviour of the world has sunk towards irrelevance. The General
Assembly is permanently sidelined. The Security Council is heeded only when
its decisions don't interfere with the plans of any of its members. Next
week's Millennium Summit, the biggest meeting of heads of state in the
history of the world, is likely to be just another scene in an ever more
UN officials have long been aware of their problem. They have spent much of
the past ten years desperately seeking to be taken seriously by the world's
great powers. They are in danger, as a result, of exchanging the role of
clown for the role of villain.
The UN's metamorphosis began at the Earth Summit in 1992. The United
Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations, which tried to help weak
nations to protect themselves from predatory companies, had recommended
that businesses should be internationally regulated. The UN refused to
circulate its suggestions. Instead the summit adopted the proposals of a
very different organisation: the Business Council for Sustainable
Development, composed of the chief executives of big corporations.
Unsurprisingly, the council had recommended that companies should regulate
themselves. In 1993, the UNCTC was dissolved.
In June 1997, the president of the General Assembly announced that
corporations would be given a formal role in United Nations
decision-making. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, suggested that he
would like to see more opportunities for companies -- rather than
governments or the UN -- to set global standards. At the beginning of 1998,
the UN Conference on Trade And Development revealed that it was working
with the International Chamber of Commerce to help developing countries
"formulate competition and consumer protection law" and to facilitate
trade. The UN, which until a few years before had sought to defend poor
countries from big business, would now be helping big business to overcome
the resistance of poor countries. The ICC repaid the favour, by asking the
world's richest nations to give the UN more money.
In January 1999, Mr Annan launched a new agency, called the "Business
Humanitarian Forum." It would be jointly chaired by the UN High
Commissioner on Refugees and the president of a company called Unocal.
Unocal was, at the time, the only major U.S. company still operating in
Burma. It was helping the Burmese government to build a massive gas
pipeline, during the construction of which Burmese soldiers tortured and
killed local people. "The business community," Annan explained to Unocal,
Nestle, Rio Tinto and the other members of the new forum, "is fast becoming
one of the United Nations' most important allies... That is why the
organization's doors are open to you as never before."
Two months later, a leaked memo revealed that the UN Development Programme
had accepted $50,000 from each of 11 giant corporations. In return, Nike,
Rio Tinto, Shell, BP, Novartis, ABB, Dow Chemical and the other companies
would gain priveleged access to UNDP offices, acquiring, in the agency's
words, "a new and unique vehicle for market development activities," as
well as "world-wide recognition for their cooperation with the UN." The
UNDP would develop a special UN logo which the companies could put on their
After fierce campaigning by human rights groups, this scheme was suspended.
But in July this year, Mr Annan launched a far more ambitious partnership,
a "Global Compact" with 50 of the world's biggest and most controversial
corporations. The companies promised to respect their workers and the
environment. This, Annan told them, would "safeguard open markets while at
the same time creating a human face for the global economy." The firms
which signed his compact would be better placed to deal with "pressure from
single-issue groups." Again, they would be allowed to use the UN's logo.
But there would be no binding commitments, and no external assessment of
how well they were doing.
The UN, in other words, appears to be turning itself into an enforcement
agency for the global economy, helping western companies to penetrate new
markets while avoiding the regulations which would be the only effective
means of holding them to account. By making peace with power, the United
Nations is declaring war upon the powerless.
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