The last few years have witnessed the increasing blurring of corporate and governmental roles in the international sphere – none more worrisome, perhaps, than the United Nations cozying up to big business. With a surge in private-public partnerships among various U.N. agencies, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is leading the international organization into ever more intrusive and entangling ties between the U.N. and multinational corporations.
One recent misstep is the U.N.'s "Global Compact." With the disappointing support of some international human rights and environmental organizations, the U.N. has asked multinational corporations to sign on to the compact's unenforceable and overly vague code of conduct. Companies are able to sign on to the compact and "bluewash" themselves, as critics at the Transnational Research and Action Center in San Francisco have labeled the effort by image-impaired corporations to repair public perceptions by hooking up with the U.N. in a report, Tangled Up In Blue.
"The U.N. must not become complicit in the positive branding of corporations that violate U.N. principles," warned a coalition of sustainable development activists organized by TRAC, in a July letter to Annan. "Given that there is no provision for monitoring a corporation's record in abiding by U.N. principles, the Guidelines' [the Guidelines on Cooperation Between the United Nations and the Business Community, issued to clarify which companies are eligible for U.N. partnerships] modalities for partnerships are quite susceptible to abuse. For example, a company with widespread labor or environmental violations may be able to join with the U.N. in a relatively minor cooperative project, and gain all the benefits of association with the U.N. without any responsibilities. The U.N. would have no way to determine whether the company, on balance, is contributing to U.N. goals or preventing their realization."
This kind of bluewashing is already taking place. Among the early supporters of the compact are Nike, Shell, and Rio Tinto. Nike has employed sweatshop workers in Asia and elsewhere to produce its overpriced athletic wear. Shell has been targeted by activists for its ties to the Nigerian government, which has a dismal human rights history. Rio Tinto, one of the world's largest mining companies, has been associated with environmental and human rights disasters around the world. These are three of the last companies you would expect to see on a list of responsible businesses.
Just as troublesome, Kofi Annan has framed the compact in the context of acceptance and promotion of corporate globalization – a kind of plea to business leaders to recognize their own self-interest in restraining some of their worst abuses.
In exchange for corporations' signing on to the Global Compact, he said when first announcing the initiative, the U.N. would seek both to make it easy for companies to enter into partnerships with U.N. agencies and to advocate for speeding up corporate globalization.
"You may find it useful to interact with us through our newly created Web site, www.un.org/partners, which offers one-stop shopping for corporations interested in the United Nations," Koffi Annan told business leaders gathered in January 1999 at the Davos World Economic Forum. "More important, perhaps, is what we can do in the political arena, to help make the case for and maintain an environment which favors trade and open markets."
The promise of the United Nations, if only sometimes realized, is to serve as an intergovernmental body to advance justice, human rights, and sustainable development worldwide. Not long ago the U.N.'s Center on Transnational Corporations collected critical data on multinationals and published incisive critiques of growing corporate power. That growing power eventually was sufficient to force the closure of the Center on Transnational Corporations, thanks to the demands of the United States. Now, with the U.N. permitting itself to become perverted with corporate sponsorships, partnerships, and other entanglements, it risks veering down the road of commercialization and marginalization.
An effective United Nations must be free of corporate encumbrances. Its agencies should be the leading critics of the many ways that corporate globalization is functioning to undermine the U.N. missions to advance ecological sustainability, human rights, and global economic justice – not apologists and collaborators with the dominant corporate order.