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The United Nations Sits in Suspicious Company

by Joshua Karliner and Kenny BrunoInternational Herald Tribune
August 10th, 2000

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Do the UN flag and the Nike swoosh belong together? Secretary-General Kofi Annan thinks they might. Leaders of nearly 50 of the world's most powerful corporations met with him on July 26 to hail the dawn of a new relationship between the United Nations and big business.

A coalition of critics, including Greenpeace International and the Third World Network, denounces this Global Compact as threatening the integrity of the United Nations.

At the UN meeting, the leaders of corporations well known for running sweatshops, engendering environmental disaster and colluding in human rights violations sat at the table with Mr. Annan. They agreed to adhere to and publicly promote the Global Compact's nine core principles of universally accepted labor, environmental and human rights values.

Business will regulate itself, charting its progress by posting ''best practices'' case studies on the Global Compact Web site. Meanwhile, the United Nations and these companies will seek to establish active on-the-ground partnerships - building schools, establishing Internet connections and the like - to ''implement'' the principles.

But there will be no mechanism to make adherence to the compact's principles binding in any way. That is how the International Chamber of Commerce wants it.

This despite calls from people on the inside like Pierre Sane, president of Amnesty International, who participated in the UN meeting. There he told a press conference that for the Global Compact to be ''effective and credible'' there must be publicly reported independent monitoring and enforcement via a sanctions system ''so companies who are violating these principles cannot continue to benefit from the partnership.''

UN officials say they have neither the mandate nor the capacity to assess a corporation's record, let alone enforce the compact. This seems absurd. Certainly one need only read the newspaper to realize that many of the companies that the United Nations has chosen do not exactly qualify as human rights and environmental heroes.

The United Nations has issued guidelines providing for limited corporate use of its logo. We are not going to see a new line of Kofi Annan-endorsed Nikes called ''UN Blues'' any time soon, but we may see the UN olive branches and the Nike swoosh side by side in a glossy global television commercial about ending poverty, even if Nike makes little or no progress in eliminating sweatshop conditions in its factories in Asia.

In effect, the Global Compact allows corporations known for their human rights and environmental violations to ''bluewash'' their image by wrapping themselves in the UN flag.

The United Nations is the only potential countervailing force to a brand of globalization that puts profits before people and the environment. The Global Compact undermines the UN potential for demanding corporate accountability.

The writers work with the Transnational Resource & Action Center, which is part of a coalition critical of'the Global Compact and produces Corporate Watch at, an internet magazine and resource center. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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