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 affected countries."

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 release.

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 via satellite.

Maucher's Ambitions

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."

Shared Vision?

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 markets.

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;; www.xs4all. nl/~ceo.

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