11. United Nations Corporate Partnerships – A Human Rights Peril

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Dollars and Sense, July/August 2000
Title: United McNations
Author: Danielle Knight

Multinational Monitor, March 2000
Title: Perilous Partnerships
Author: Kenny Bruno

Corporate news coverage: Toronto Star 3/19/99, Washington Post 7/27/00 p. A-6

Faculty evaluators; Tim Wandling, Ph.D., Robert Tellander,
Student Researchers: Cassandra Pojda, Bonnie Faulkner, Terrie Girdner

In a move to make the United Nations more corporate-friendly, officials are calling for UN-corporate partnerships. The UN’s new partners include multinational giants like McDonald’s, Disney, Dow, and Unocal.

A business-friendly ideology at the UN is based on a desire to gain favor with the United States, the UN’s largest funder, and to raise money through private sources. The practice of the U.S. withholding dues from the UN for political purposes has jeopardized its operations. Now facing a funding crisis, the UN is turning to direct corporate aid on an unprecedented scale. UN officials are keenly aware that support from the United States is predicated upon a friendly stance toward business. U.S. business pressure led to the closure of the UN’s Center on Transnational Corporations in the early 1990s.

UN agencies have entered into an array of partnerships with giant corporations, including many that citizen movements have denounced for violations of human and labor rights. Human rights groups around the world are increasingly challenging the new partnership arrangements for fear that these new relationships will undermine the UN’s ability to serve as a counterbalance to global corporate power. Human rights groups fear that corporations will get a public boost by wrapping themselves in the UN flag while making no commitments to adjust their behavior to reflect the institution’s principles. They are calling on the UN to pull back from the partnerships and set clear guidelines for any cooperative ventures with business enterprises. At stake are the core values of the UN itself as the partnerships undermine the primacy of human rights, health, labor rights and environmental protection to favor markets and profits.

Executive director of UNICEF Carol Bellamy warned in April 1999, “It is dangerous to assume that goals of the private sector are somehow synonymous with those of the United Nations.” Ward Moorehouse of the Center for International and Public Affairs in New York stated that, “the UN’s job must be to monitor and hold corporations accountable, not to give out special favors.”

General Kofi Anan set the stage for the partnership initiative by calling on CEOs to join a “Global Compact” with the UN. He also challenged business leaders to enact the nine principles derived from UN agreements on labor standards, human rights, and environmental protection.

One of the controversial partnerships is the Global Sustainable Development Facility (GSDF) set up to fund sustainable development projects worldwide. The GSDF is now headed by a steering committee that includes Dow Chemical, the world’s largest producer of chlorine and pesticides, and Asea Brown and Bovari, one of the main suppliers for the controversial Three Gorges Dam in China.

The UN High Commissioner on Refugees, Sadako Ogata, is now co-chair of the Business Humanitarian Forum with Unocal President John Imle. Unocal is a business partner with Burma’s murderous military regime. Unocal’s gas pipeline project in Burma has generated thousands of refugees seeking to escape the militarized pipeline area.

UNESCO, the UN’s educational arm, is teaming up with Disney and McDonald’s to present “Millennium Dreamer” youth awards to two thousand kids. It “should have crossed UNESCO officials minds that young people have more than enough exposure to these two brands already.” said Beth Handman, a curriculum specialist in New York city schools.

Update by Kenny Bruno

The Battle in Seattle revealed the existence of a growing citizens’ movement actively opposing corporate globalization and the international institutions that support it. Many in this movement see the United Nations, with its unique dedication to universal values of peace, human rights, environmental protection, and public health, as a potential counterbalance to the WTO and its pro-corporate agenda of free trade and investment. However, under financial pressure, due largely to the United States refusal to pay its dues, and fearful of irrelevance in world affairs, the UN has turned toward “partnerships” with the private sector, including some of the same companies against which citizens’ movements campaign. These include Nike, Shell, Rio Tinto, and many others. “Perilous Partnerships” revealed the trend toward partnerships with business at the UN.

The rhetoric around the partnerships reveals a tendency for the UN to endorse a view of corporate-led globalization supported by the WTO, World Bank, and IMF. This endorsement comes precisely at the time of a popular backlash against corporate globalization, and represents a betrayal of “we the peoples” the UN is supposed to represent. In addition, the partnerships have no monitoring or enforcement of corporate behavior; therefore companies can sign onto UN principles without having to adhere to them. For some of these companies, the partnerships amount to a slick PR initiative, a chance to “bluewash” their image by wrapping themselves in the blue flag of the United Nations while carrying on with business as usual.

After publication of “Perilous Partnerships,” the International Forum on Globalization sponsored an all-day teach-in on the UN and corporate globalization. Later that week, the Alliance for a Corporate-free United Nations-a grouping of non-governmental groups from around the world-was born. UN officials have acknowledged some of our concerns, though the momentum toward partnerships has not been stopped. At the time of this writing, the General Assembly has been deadlocked since December 12,2000, over a resolution that would encourage such partnerships.

Limited coverage of the story from the UN’s point of view started in January 1999, with Kofi Annan’s launch of the Global Compact with corporations. Coverage of our critique of the partnerships has been nonexistent on television, while radio coverage has been limited to local stations, with the exception of Pacifica. In print, the New York Times did one major piece, in the context of the Millennium Summit, while Business Week ran a short blurb. In Europe, there has been somewhat more print coverage, including an exchange of opinion pieces in the International Herald Tribune and a highly critical piece in the Guardian.

This coverage, along with exchanges of letters between our Alliance and UN officials, our report “Tangled Up In Blue,” and a great deal of other information is available on this theme at http://www.corpwatch.org/un. We encourage you to visit the site and add your voice to those who believe the UN’s role should be to monitor and hold accountable the global corporations, rather than to form partnerships with them.

Kenny Bruno: kbruno@verizon.net