|Global Partnership Widened
Two gatherings - one organized by Secretary-General Kofi Annan,
and the other by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD) - highlighted a determination to widen the
global partnerships between the United Nations and key players
in today's world. These partnerships are not limited to the business
community, crucial as they are, but also extend to non-governmental
organizations with grass-roots support on specific issues and
key personalities with influential impact on decision-making.
A Global Compact received at least public commitment by over
50 companies to apply specific standards of human conduct whenever
they do business. The Secretary-General convened a day-long meeting
at UN Headquarters on 26 July to encourage multinational corporations
to commit themselves to support human rights, eliminate child
labour, allow free trade unions and refrain from polluting the
environment. The multinationals - some of them the target for
protests - were joined by labour associations and watchdog groups
in signing the Global Compact.
The Compact consists of nine principles drawn from international
accords like the Universal Declaration of Human rights and the
Rio Declaration adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
The initiative will require companies to post a yearly update
on their progress under the Compact, and they will be subject
to criticism on their performance. The companies are expected
to cooperate with UN agencies on social projects in the developing
countries in which they operate.
The Secretary-General first launched the Global Compact at the
World Economic Forum at Davos in 1999, where he warned that globalization
could face a backlash because global rules for protecting corporate
interests had become far more robust than those for safeguarding
Professor John Ruggie, Assistant Secretary-General, said this
and similar initiatives on how corporations should act to safeguard
environment and labour standards, were aimed in part at moving
the debate on those issues out of the World Trade Organization.
The WTO, he said, "was never designed and cannot handle being
an arbiter of human rights, labour and environmental issues".
Mr. Annan said that companies should not wait for Governments
to pass laws before they paid a decent wage or agreed not pollute
the environment. If companies led by example, Governments might
wake up and make laws to formalize the various practices, he said.
Companies should also adhere to the standards even when the nations
where they conduct business did not require them to do so.
The New York Times observed that, since the collapse of the world
trade talks and noisy protests in Seattle last year, multinational
companies have been "scrambling to forge alliances" with some
of their critics, including unions and human rights and conservation
groups, and that the UN-sponsored Global Compact was the "most
visible example" of such alliances. It was also an attempt by
Mr. Annan to make the world body a more effective force for social
and labour standards.
Writing in The Financial Times, Nike's Philip Knight called the
Global Compact a much-needed framework for monitoring the behaviour
of multinationals, for without it, many companies would continue
to feel pulled in all directions. It had the potential to become
a truly effective forum because companies, trade unions, UN agencies
and NGOs would work together to address global issues through
dialogue and cooperative initiatives for the people most affected
by globalization. He believed, he said, "in a global system that
measures every multinational against a set of core, universal
standards, using an independent process of social performance
monitoring akin to financial monitoring".
Some observers see the partnership as vital as the world grapples
with the reality that nations cannot regulate, tax and set standards
for commerce as efficiently when companies spread their operations
over many countries, rich and poor. In terms of forging partnership,
the session showed how world Governments and corporate leaders
increasingly rely on each other to demonstrate that they are helping
the people left behind when companies move capital and manufacturing
plants around the world.
Many were of the view, however, that the effort was highly unlikely
to alter the global economic landscape immediately. Critics said
the UN was participating in a "bluewash", allowing some of the
largest and richest corporations to "wrap themselves in the United
Nations' blue flag without requiring them to do anything new.
Some, like Greenpeace, did not sign the Compact, telling the Secretary-General
in a letter that some of the participants had poor records of
operating abroad and did not deserve to be UN partners. The letter
called on Mr. Annan to "reassess your overall approach to UN-corporate
partnerships", adding that the mission and integrity of the United
Nations wee at stake.
The United Nations will not insist on strict compliance. Indeed,
Mr. Annan pointed out that the UN had neither the capacity nor
the mandate to police the companies. Ruggie, too, acknowledged
that adherence to the Compact was purely voluntary, because the
UN had no mandate to negotiate a binding code of conduct for multinationals.
The Compact which companies had signed on to was far from toothless,
Ruggie said, convinced that transparency and the accountability
of public opinion could be as powerful a force as any enforcement
mechanism that can be devised.
Another gathering was the OECD-sponsored "Partnership for the
21st Century", held at the end of June in Paris, which also brought
together representatives of Governments, the private sector, intergovernmental
and non-governmental organizations.
Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette stressed the need for
a practical partnership to meet development goals. She told the
participants: "We are making progress, although unevenly. Yet,
thus far, we have failed to work together as productively as we
could, or as effectively as we need to for the future. This is
where partnership comes in. Everybody has to play a role in translating
the development goals into tangible results".
Governments of OECD countries held many of the main levers for
progress to be made in developing countries, she said. "Only they
can expand debt relief. Only they can open their markets to developing-country
exports. Only they can dispense more and better-targeted official
development assistance. Far-sighted leadership in these areas
could go a very long way towards creating and improving opportunities
of the poor".
But even enlightened global policy and decisive action would
not be enough, Mme. Frechette continued. In today's world, global
actors with tremendous influence on the quality of people's lives
were increasingly those that operate outside the public domain.
NGOs and business alike were coming to grips with the need to
see beyond their specific goals and concerns to the broader picture.
"Single-issue tenacity has its place. But there must also be an
understanding that there is a range of priorities of equal urgency
and with equal claim on the world's attention. There must be a
willingness to form alliances that might not be obvious but that
would advance the overall cause. How refreshing it would be, for
example, if environmental groups were to campaign for extending
economic opportunities to the poor, or if business were to lend
its support to debt relief measures".
"While there is no shortage of good intentions, we are all feeling
our way towards viable approaches to tap the rich pool of energy,
creativity and goodwill that exists. If we are to attain the priority
goals set out by the international community, we must give direction
and encouragement to these new forces". It was in this context
that the Secretary-General had proposed a Global Compact with
the world's business community.
The famously fragmented United Nations system was also trying
to practice what it preaches, she said, concluding: "The United
Nations cannot and does not want to usurp the role of other actors
on the world stage, but to become a more effective catalyst for
change and coordination among them. That is our most vital role".