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Corporate Europe Observer

United Nations Under Siege

Corporate Takeover of the United Nations Continues...

In the last issue of Corporate Europe Observer, we reported on a June 1997 luncheon in UN headquarters with corporate executives and global political leaders, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Discussion topics included business participation in the UN decision-making process and a UN-business partnership in development policies. That this event was not an isolated case becomes clear in the following two articles: one describing the increasingly successful attempts of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) to gain privileged access to the UN; and the other detailing a particularly inappropriate case of corporate sponsorship -- Nestlé's recent hosting and sponsoring of a UN workshop on women and sustainable development. 

The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) -- the self- proclaimed "world business organization" -- wants privileged access to the United Nations and other international organizations. During last year's presidency of Nestlé's Helmut Maucher, the ICC's ambitions seemed to materialize and take flight.

UN-Business Partnership

he International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), contrary to what its name might suggest, is primarily an organization representing the largest transnational corporations on earth, including corporate giants like General Motors, Novartis, Bayer and Nestlé. The ICC, which for many years has pushed for global economic deregulation within the World Trade Organization, the G-7 and the 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 favourable to business is being nurtured from the very top," ICC Secretary General Maria Livanos Cattaui concluded with satisfaction in a column in the International Herald Tribune in February. Cattaui quotes UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in saying that the time is ripe for consultation between the UN and business.[1]

Cattaui's optimism was confirmed the same week in a February 9th meeting of 25 ICC business leaders with a heavyweight UN delegation headed by Kofi Annan, heralded as the first step in "a systematic dialogue." The ICC delegation included captains of industry from Coca Cola, Unilever, McDonalds, Goldman Sachs and Rio Tinto Zinc. In a joint statement, the ICC and the UN Secretary General stated that "broad political and economic changes have opened up new opportunities for dialogue and cooperation between the United Nations and the private sector". The two sides committed themselves 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 argue for "establishing an effective regulatory framework for globalization, including investment, capital markets, competition, intellectual property rights and trade facilitation."[2] The ICC has worked with UN institutions before, but not on the highest level and not on the potentially very wide range of political matters around which 'partnership' now seems to have emerged.[3]

ICC and UNCTAD Hand-in-Hand

One of the concrete projects agreed upon at the February consultation between the UN and ICC is a joint series of business investment guides to the least developed countries, to be produced by the UN Centre for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the ICC. The aim of these guides is to increase foreign direct investment flows into the 48 countries which the UN considers 'least developed', 38 of which are African. The guides "are to contain accurate, objective, investor-oriented and comparative information on investment opportunities and conditions in the countries covered."

Another example of the new fruitful cooperation arose in March, when the ICC and UNCTAD presented the results of a joint "worldwide survey of leading multinational companies" which showed that corporations had not lost interest in investing in East and Southeast Asia. ICC Secretary-General Cattaui concluded from the survey of 198 TNCs that "business still sees enormous investment opportunities to be derived from the projected growth of Asian markets in the 21st century."[4] The survey shows that 34% of European firms, and 19% of US and Japan-based TNCs plan to increase their activities in Asia. A senior UNCTAD investment expert explained that: "In the short and medium term, the lower costs for multinationals in the most affected countries create immediate incentives for additional direct investment."[5] UNCTAD Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero said that the interest expressed by TNCs "augurs well for recovery in the region."[6]

Geneva Business Dialogue

The most ambitious event this year in the ICC's strategy for forging closer links with UN and other international institutions is the Geneva Business Dialogue, a conference slated to take place on September 23-24 1998. "The Geneva Business Dialogue," a press release explains, "is the ICC's initiative to create a successful mechanism to deal with the effects, promises and progress of globalization." Participants at this conference, which organizers plan to hold annually, will be from "the ICC and the many important international organizations based in Geneva." [7] ICC president Maucher amplifies: "During two days of intensive meetings in September, we shall bring together the heads of international companies and the leaders of international organizations so that business experiences and expertise is channelled into the decision-making process for the global economy."[8] The programme -- details are yet to be released will deal with "some of the significant and contentious issues raised by an increasingly integrated international economy." [9]

The ICC boasts that the initiative "is welcomed at the highest level of the World Trade Organization, the United Nations system and other international bodies", and the preliminary participants list confirms that the Geneva Business Dialogue will bring together influential players including EU Commissioner Yves-Thibault de Silguy, WTO Director-General Renato de Ruggiero, high-level officials from the World Bank and the Industrial Standards Organization (ISO), as well as presidents, prime ministers and other top ministers from the US, Finland, Hungary, Thailand and Switzerland. Among the many high-level UN representatives are UNCTAD Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero and UN Under-Secretary General Vladimir Petrovsky. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will address the dialogue through a satellite connection. In addition to Helmut Maucher himself, 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.

Maucher's Ambitions

The new "partnership" between the ICC and the UN is the result of the former's ambitious strategy pursued since Helmut Maucher took the helm in early 1997. Maucher, who recently left his job as CEO of Nestlé but remains on the board of directors, felt that the ICC had hitherto been neither sufficiently influential nor visible in the media.[10] Maucher has observed the efficient work of environmental and human rights NGOs within the UN system with great concern. In one of his first interviews as ICC president, Maucher warned: "We have to be careful that they do not get too much influence." [11]

Within both the WTO and the UN, the ICC is pushing for the implementation of "a framework of global rules" which it plans to help draft, "as the only organization qualified to speak for every business sector in all parts of the world. Governments have to understand," Maucher argues, "that business is not just another pressure group but a resource that will help them set the right rules."[12] The joint statement between the UN Secretary- General and the ICC clarifies the ICC's reasons for wanting to be involved in global decision making: "Business has a strong interest in multilateral cooperation, including standard-setting through the United Nations and other intergovernmental institutions and international conventions on the environment and other global and transborder issues."

When Maucher became vice president of the ICC in 1995, he immediately dove into a reorganization process. He brought in a new Secretary-General, Maria Livanos Cattaui, who for many years had organized the World Economic Forum in Davos and like Maucher has a wide ranging network of international contacts. Maucher himself divides his time as ICC president with his leadership of the European Roundtable of Industrialists. (ERT; for background information see "Europe, Inc.", CEO, 1997) Maucher's ambitions for the ICC also include formal status within the World Trade Organization (WTO): "We want neither to be the secret girlfriend of the WTO," Maucher said in an interview, "nor should the ICC have to enter the World Trade Organization through the servants entrance."[13] To pursue this more intimate relationship with the WTO, Maucher has made former GATT general director Arthur Dunkel chairman of the ICC's commission on trade. Dunkel is also a board member of Nestlé.

Shared Vision?

The ICC, with its strategic cooptation of the message spread by NGOs and people's movements, is attempting to use the growing consensus that global deregulation is creating serious social and environmental problems to its advantage. As Maria Livanos Cattaui described the ICC's new cooperation with the UN, "the dialogue is coming not a moment too soon. Globalization has the potential to bring immense benefits to the human race. But as recent events in East Asia have demonstrated, it can swiftly magnify local crises into problems affecting the entire world economy. Hence the need for a framework of rules on investment, capital markets, competition policy and a host of other areas."

The ICC's agenda of deregulated markets -- in the interest of hardly anyone besides the large transnational corporations united in the ICC -- is presented an idealistic strategy to benefit all people. Cattaui disturbingly claims to have UN support for the ICC's vision: "What makes the dialogue possible is the perception by both sides that open markets are a precondition for spreading more widely the benefits of globalization, for integrating developing countries into the world economy, and for improving living standards of all the world's peoples, and in particular the poor."

The joint UN-ICC statement seems to confirm a wide-ranging consensus, as it emphasizes the importance of  "the effective functioning of the global market place and on the existence of open, equitable, inclusive economic systems, based on the free flow of trade, investment for economic growth and development and the avoidance of protectionist pressures."

The UN seems to have largely given up worrying about the growing economic dominance of transnational corporations worldwide. Until 1993, the UN still had its Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) which carried out research and served the Commission on Transnational Corporations, an intergovernmental 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 promoted restricting foreign investment in the South Africa under the apartheid regime. In 1993 the UNCTC was dismantled as part of a 'reorganization', and UNCTAD became the new UN focal point for work on TNCs. UNCTAD, however, does not address the regulation of TNC activities, but rather works closely with them in order to stimulate foreign investment flows to the Third World. Work on the Code of Conduct on TNCs has stopped entirely.

With this "systematic dialogue" with the UN, the ICC has made a disturbing leap forward in its desire to become the legitimate global representative of "business". However, the ICC does by no means represent all businesses, but principally only the largest transnational corporations. The interests of these footloose global players differ significantly from those businesses which are grounded in and oriented towards a local market. But there are other fundamental questions besides whether or not the ICC is really "the world business organization". Is it appropriate for corporations -- which are supposed to compete, adapt and diversify -- to organize themselves in what effectively equals a global political monopoly? And concerning the ICC's ambitions for "global regulation": should corporations not simply be following the rules -- local, national or global - shaped by democratically elected governments assisted by citizens organisations?

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1. Maria Livanos Cattaui: "UN-Business Partnership Forged on Global Economy", February 6 in International Herald Tribune. | Back to Text |

2. "UN-Business Partnership to Boost Economic Development", ICC statement 9 February 1998.| Back to Text |

3. For instance the ICC signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Programme in September 1992 "under which UNDP provides financial and practical support for ICC efforts to strengthen the private sector and chambers of commerce in developing countries and in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union", ICC website. The Inter- national Bureau of Chambers of Commerce (IBCC), which is a part of the ICC, is playing a leading role in implementing the agreement.| Back to Text |

4. ICC and UNCTAD Press Release: "Leading Multinationals Vote their Confidence in Asia", 18 March 1998.| Back to Text |

5. Ibid.| Back to Text |

6. ibid.| Back to Text |

7. Helmut Maucher: "Ruling by Consent", guest column in the Financial Times, 6 December 1997, FT Exporter, p. 2.| Back to Text |

8. "Die Globalisierung Verlangt eine Kraftigere Stimme der Wirtschaft", Frankfurter Algemeine 12 February 1997, p. 13.| Back to Text |

9. Ibid.| Back to Text |

10. Helmut Maucher: "Ruling by Consent", guest column in the Financial Times, 6 December 1997, FT Exporter, p. 2.| Back to Text |

11. Ibid.| Back to Text |

12. ibid.| Back to Text |

13. "Die Globalisierung Verlangt eine Kraftigere Stimme der Wirtschaft", Frankfurter Algemeine 12 February 1997, p.13. | Back to Text |

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