The Corporate Co-optation of the UN
from the Corporate Europe Observatory
Earth Island Journal, Summer 1998
The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) represents the
largest transnational corporations on Earth, including General
Motors, Novartis, Bayer and Nestle. The ICC, which for many years
has pushed for global economic deregulation within the World Trade
Organization (WTO), the G-7 (now the G-8, with the inclusion of
Russia) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD), now has its sights set on the United Nations.
"The way the United Nations regards international business
has changed fundamentally. This shift towards a stance more favorable
to business is being nurtured from the very top," ICC Secretary
General Maria Livanos Cattaui wrote in an International Herald
Tribune column this February. Cattaui quoted UN Secretary General
Kofi Annan in saying that the time is ripe for consultation between
the UN and business.
The UN's pro-business shift was heralded by a February 9 meeting
of 25 ICC business leaders with a heavyweight UN delegation headed
by Kofi Annan. The ICC delegation included representatives of
Coca Cola, Unilever, McDonalds, Goldman Sachs and Rio Tinto Zinc.
Following the meeting, the ICC and the Secretary General issued
a joint statement declaring that "broad political and economic
changes have opened up new opportunities for dialogue and cooperation
between the United Nations and the private sector" and committing
the two entities to "forge a close global partnership to
secure greater business input into the world's economic decision-making
and boost the private sector in the least developed countries."
The industry representatives used the occasion to call for "establishing
an effective regulatory framework for globalization."
At the February consultation, the ICC and the UN's Center
for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) agreed to co-produce a series
of investment guides to provide "comparative information
on investment opportunities" in the world's 48 "least
developed" countries, 38 of which are African.
A March 1998 joint ICC/UNCTAD survey of 198 transnational
corporations (TNCs) revealed that 34 percent of European firms
and 19 percent of US and Japan-based companies plan to increase
investments in Asia. A senior UNCTAD spokesperson explained the
attraction: "the lower costs for multinationals in the most
Geneva Business Dialogue
The ICC's Geneva Business Dialogue (GBD), set for September
23-24, will "bring together the heads of international companies
and the leaders of international organizations so that business
experiences and expertise is channeled into the decision-making
process for the global economy," according to an ICC press
The ICC boasts that the meeting "is welcomed at the highest
level of the World Trade Organization, the United Nations system
and other international bodies." GBD attendees will include
EU Commissioner Yves-Thibault de Silguy, WTO Director-General
Renato de Ruggiero, high-level officials from the World Bank and
the Industrial Standards Organization, as well as presidents,
prime ministers and other top ministers from the US, Finland,
Hungary, Thailand and Switzerland. Business will be represented
by CEOs from Unilever, ICI, Mitsubishi, Goldman Sachs, Lyonnaise
des Eaux, Norsk Hydro, Siemens, BASF, Shell and many other global
corporations. The high-level UN attendees will include UNCTAD
Secretary-General Rubens Ricu-pero and UN Under-Secretary General
Vladimir Petrovsky. Secretary-General Annan will address the GBD
The ICC bid for a "partnership" with the UN is the
result of ICC President Helmut Maucher's concern over the growing
impact of environmental and human rights NGOs within the UN system.
In one of his first interviews as ICC president, Maucher (who
is also a leader of the European Roundtable of Industrialists)
warned: "We have to be careful that they [the environmental
and human rights activists] do not get too much influence".
The ICC, "as the only organization qualified to speak
for every business sector in all parts of the world," is
pushing for the implementation of "a framework of global
rules" that it plans to help draft. "Governments have
to understand," Maucher says, "that business is not
just another pressure group but a resource that will help them
set the right rules.
Maucher's ambitions for the ICC include formal status within
the WTO: "We want neither to be the secret girlfriend of
the WTO, nor should the ICC have to enter the World Trade Organization
through the servants' entrance."
The UN seems to have given up worrying about the growing economic
dominance of transnational corporations. Until 1993, the UN still
had its Center on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) which carried
out research for the Commission on Transnational Corporations,
an inter-governmental body with the mandate of developing a Code
of Conduct for TNCs.
Corporations were extremely hostile to the UNCTC, which also
developed environmental guidelines for TNCs and favored investment
sanctions against South Africa during apartheid. In 1993, the
UNCTC was dismantled as part of a "reorganization,"
and replaced by UNCTAD. UNCTAD, however, does not address the
regulation of TNC activities, but rather works closely with them
in order to stimulate foreign investment in the Third World. Work
on the Code of Conduct has stopped entirely.
Despite its grandiose claims, the ICC does not represent all
businesses - only the largest transnational corporations. The
interests of these footloose global players differ significantly
from those of local and regional businesses oriented toward local
It is wrong for corporations (which are supposed to compete,
adapt and diversify) to organize themselves into a global political
monopoly Instead of calling for "global regulation,"
corporations should be required to respect local, national and
global rules shaped by democratically elected governments assisted
by citizens organizations.
Corporate Observatory Europe, c/o A SEED Europe Office, PO
Box 92066 1090 AB Amsterdam, The Netherlands; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.xs4all.