Making Peace With Power

The United Nations is trying to regain its credibility by fawning to big business

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 31st August 2000

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 ludicrous pantomime.

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 products.

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.