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Home  » Campaigns » Past Campaigns » Alliance for a Corporate-Free UN

The United Nations and Globalization

by Martin KhorThird World Network
May 22nd, 2000

This speech was given by Martin Khor, Director of the Third World Network at the opening plenary of the Millenium Forum in late May 2000. The Millenium Forum was a gathering of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) designed to generate input for the Millenium Assembly -- a UN-sponsored meeting of world leaders slated for early September 2000. Mr. Khor's speech followed those given by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and International Labor Organization head Juan Somavia.


We are meeting at the beginning of the new century, facing the serious crises handed over from the last century. A few years ago someone predicted the "end of history", the end of conflicts of ideas or physical conflicts as all countries and people embrace the single goal of freemarkets and liberal democracy.

But the end of the Cold War did not usher in universal prosperity or brotherhood. The scandal of poverty remains more entrenched, and there are rising inequalities between countries, social classes, men and women, indigenous people and those who want to colonise their resources. Instead of peace and security, there are conflicts and insecurities, some of them resulting from global pressures and from inequities and poverty. There is the environmental crisis, raising questions about survival of Earth and humanity. There are the threats of technology gone wrong, such as nuclear power, toxic chemicals and genetic engineering. In the area of health, scientists are predicting the end of the antibiotics era as disease-bearing bacteria and viruses overcome overused antibiotics and pose the threat of new epidemics.

Our age is also defined by the process of globalisation. There are different approaches to this phenomenon. Some say it is inevitable and basically good, you just have to adjust to it and learn to reap the benefits. Others worry about the costs and advocate some safety nets to catch the losers as they fall. In truth, the essence of globalisation is the push by big companies and financial institutions to have more power, to grow bigger through taking over others, and make more profits. They have lobbied their governments, of the rich countries, to break down the national barriers that prevent them from totally free access to markets across the world, especially in the developing countries.

These countries' economies had suffered during colonialism, so in the first phase of independence, governments of many of these countries instituted measures to boost their weak domestic economy, domestic firms, banks and farms. They had affirmative action policies in favour of the local economy and firms, and defended them from predatory big foreign firms. These big firms now want to break down the barriers so that they can take over the local firms and farms of the developing world and increase their monopoly. Thus we now see the liberalisation of trade, finance and investment. But in areas where the big companies and their governments would lose from liberalisation, they practise protectionism, for example the imposition of high intellectual property standards throughout the world which is protectionist, in creating monopoly of technology by the big companies and hindering technology transfer.

Globalisation as practised today is a kind of apartheid, a term mentioned by Juan Somavia, director-general of the ILO in his speech just now. It is misleading and it skirts the issue to talk only in terms of "sharing better the benefits of globalisation" and helping the "marginalised." This presumes that globalisation only produces benefits, but some gain more than others. In reality, globalisation creates benefits for some, losses for others, and worse, the same process that generates benefits also generates losses. So, part of the benefits of the gainers is at the expense of the losses of the losers.

Globalisation is a process that can be called re-colonisation, a term created by Mr Raghavan of the SUNS Bulletin, when he wrote a book on GATT, the Uruguay Round and the South. A new form of colonialism is operating. When the people fought against slavery, or apartheid, or colonialism, they did not speak in terms of sharing better the benefits of slavery or apartheid or colonialism. They fought the systems of slavery, apartheid and colonialism themselves. So too we cannot just talk of sharing better the benefits of globalisation. We have to fight the system of the globalisation we have today.

The crux of the problem is the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the world. We must recognise this and not skirt the issue. Those that hold power and wealth want to keep it and protect it. Thus we see the double standards that exist between what is preached towards others and what is protected for themselves to maintain the monopoly of power and wealth. There has been the successful campaign to ban land mines, a victory of the people's movements. But the nuclear powers still refuse to ban nuclear weapons. There is much talk and conditionality to get transparency and democracy going at the national level, and we NGOs have been part of this campaign in our countries. But the major countries refuse to democratise at the international level, where the global decisions are taken mainly by the G8 or the OECD or the Bretton Woods institutions and WTO, without the adequate participation of smaller nations, let alone the civil society. There has been the great pressures of the rich countries to get the poorer countries to liberalise their economies, but the North practises protectionism when they insist on patenting their technologies, when they practise bio-piracy, when they do not open their doors to labour coming from the South.

One of our central issues at the Forum is how to revitalise the influence of the UN. In truth, as we all know, the UN has been disempowered not because it is inefficient or useless but because it is too transparent and too democratic, and its decisions are taken with the participation of all countries. The Security Council is the exception. The developing countries have too much influence in the UN since decisions are on the basis of one country, one vote. So the major powers decided in the early 1990s to reform and reshape the UN, and transferred its authority on economic and social issues over to the IMF, World Bank and WTO, institutions which they control. The IMF and World Bank's decisions are on the basis of one dollar one vote. The WTO has a system of decision-making that at crucial moments has excluded most developing countries, including through the notorious "green room negotiating process."

Thus, we need a democratisation of global institutions, and to inject people's rights into them. For that to happen, the big powers have to agree to loosen their grip on international institutions and relations. They will do this only when the people's movements and civil society let it be known that this is their wish.

We need democratisation and transparency in the private sector, in the financial institutions and markets, the transnational companies, we need to voice our concern about their concentration of wealth through takeovers and mergers, their ability to destroy the wealth of small countries through financial speculation.

We need transformation of the financial system and institutions. The protests in Washington, in Chiengmai, have shown that people are now aware of the tremendous damage done by the policies imposed by these financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank. Their governance system must change and their role and policies must change, or else the change in the financial system must include their marginalisation to a proper, narrow and small role.

We need change in the multilateral trading system. The WTO's operating principle of liberalisation at all cost is misleading and has caused dislocation. Many of its agreements are flawed and should be changed. For example the agriculture agreement that leads to import liberalisation in developing countries threatens millions of rural livelihoods and threatens food security. Food products of developing countries for local consumption should be excluded from the agreement's obligations on import liberalisation and domestic subsidy. The TRIPS agreement on intellectual property will raise prices of medicines, prevent technology transfer and facilitate bio-piracy. Many NGOs have concluded it has no place in a trade organisation which furthermore is supposed to promote liberalisation, not protectionism over technology. And there should be a moratorium on introducing new issues like investment, competition, government procurement, which would further enormously empower the yet unreformed WTO and have disastrous consequences.

We need the UN to have more power. Yes the UN should also reform, especially in the decision-making structure and system of the Security Council. It should be more efficient and effective to serve "we the peoples." But we all recognise it can do so only if the United States pays up its dues to the UN, and not make its payment contingent on reforms that emasculate the UN further, for that is the tactic of blackmail. Rich countries should not hold back their payment to the UN. The UN can also be empowered only when the major powers agree to return to it its legitimate role in policy making and programmes in economic and social matters. Yes the World Bank, IMF and WTO may have important roles to play, but these roles must be the appropriate ones promoting the right policies, and their current oversized roles have to shrink to appropriate sizes and functions. There must be a return transfer of power and authority from these institutions (and from rich-country exclusive mechanisms like the G8 and the OECD) to the UN.

And so, We the Peoples face a divided world of inequality and conflict. We must go beyond the nice words of diplomats and bureaucrats, for it may be their job to use nice and cautious language. We of the civil society are not expected to use such cautious and polite language. We must strive to identify and remove the sources of poverty and conflict and the inequality of wealth.

In doing so, we must first honour and pay homage to the heroes and champions of the people who have come before through the years and centuries of social struggles. Those who fought to overthrow the big oppressive forces of slavery, feudalism and colonialism. Who fought to give rights to ordinary and poor people, the small farmers and peasants, the workers in factories, the jobless and homeless. Those who fight for people's rights to a good environment, the local communities who fought against toxic waste dumps, the indigenous people and their supporters who fight against destruction of their forests and rivers, the farmers who resist the poisoning of their lands. Those who fight for safe and democratic use of technologies, against nuclear and chemical pollution, against genetic engineering and biological pollution. Those who are struggling, with their lives on their line, for land reform and land rights, for workers' rights to decent pay and work conditions, for the destitute in slums and squatter areas and plantations. Even those in national and international bureaucracies, including the diplomats and those in the the UN, who try their best to hold the fort and turn the tide on the diplomatic front.

We pledge to absorb the spirit and lessons of these champions and courageous fighters of the centuries and to take on the struggles of the modern age, the 21st century, and to use innovative and effective methods, to serve the people, and in doing so we serve the world and ourselves. We the people can survive and bring forth a better world that is socially just and ecologically sustainable and as a result a world of peace and security. We invite the UN and the governments to join us, just as the Secretary General of the UN this morning invited us to join the UN in its activities. But with the UN or without it, we the people will have to do it, to carry out our mission of bringing about a better world.