UNITED NATIONS -- You won't be seeing the United Nations secretary general proclaiming "Just do it," but global business and the U.N. might be entering a brave new world.
The corporations, which were welcomed to U.N. Headquarters Wednesday by
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are paying big money to be able to say they are
supporting the missions of the U.N. In return, the U.N. gets some big business
participation it hopes might teach others as they pledge to promote the values of the U.N.
"As I say to my colleagues in business, what are we going to do on Monday
morning?" asked Phil Watts, of Royal Dutch/Shell Group. "First of all, the best way to promote responsible global citizenship is to live it, actually do it every day."
The companies have agreed to join the U.N. Global Compact, vowing to eliminate child labor, to protect human rights and even to honor the ability
of workers to unionize.
Once a year on a special U.N. Web site, they must publicize how they have succeeded in applying the nine U.N. principles of good international behavior.
Worried about free-market expansion trampling on human rights, especially in developing countries, Annan said he was spurred to act by the disturbances at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle.
"What we must do instead is to ensure that the global market is embedded in
broadly shared values and practices that reflect global social needs," Annan said.
Some of the multinational corporations, such as Nike, have been criticized for abuses in Asian factories. But Phil Knight, Nike Company chairman, said, "real solutions that improve people's lives will result if we can make this partnership work."
Opponents say it's too little too late.
"I think these companies jumped at this opportunity because they realized that it makes them look good," said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. "They will say publicly in front of a global audience that they are for rights, but they also knew that there is no enforcement."
But the U.N. believes big business can have more influence than its own members in shaping the lives of billions of people.
"We cannot wait for governments to do it all," Annan said. "Globalization
operates on Internet time."
Skeptics question whether it's proper for the United Nations to enter a pact with big business -- some even equate it to a deal with the devil. But the secretary-general counters that the era of globalization is here to stay.
"Better to engage corporations," he said, "than to do nothing at all."
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