New UN partnership with business to encourage better standards

Jul 26, 2000 02:00 AM

Top executives from nearly 50 corporations committed themselves to uphold and promote international human rights, labour and environmental standards at the launch of a new UN partnership with business. But they resisted calls for mandatory compliance or monitoring of their performances at the inaugural meeting of the UN "Global Compact," a new collaboration of UN agencies, corporations, labour unions and human rights organisations to promote good business practices around the world.
With several of the partnership's founding members accused of environmental and rights abuses themselves -- including Nike, Shell Group and Rio Tinto -- the non-corporate partners vowed to make sure the companies' pledges to uphold UN norms weren't just words on paper.
"We're not in a situation anymore where public opinion, workers, citizens will accept a process saying 'trust me,"' said John Evans, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. "We're in the world of 'show me.' Show in practice you're putting these things into practice."

Secretary-General Kofi Annan first proposed the Global Compact in January 1999, asking corporations to commit themselves to nine key principles embodied in UN treaties. They include pledges to allow workers to unionise, eliminate child labour and develop environmentally friendly technologies.
At the time, Annan warned that the principles were necessary to uphold because corporations risked a backlash from those in the developing world who were not benefiting from globalisation -- a backlash which has since borne out in protests in Seattle, Washington, and elsewhere at global trade talks.
The 50 corporations that have signed up have agreed to incorporate the principles into their missions and post examples each year of progress they have made in implementing the nine goals on a special UN Web site. The labour and human rights members of the partnerships, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the World Wide Fund for Nature, will be able to respond to those initiatives on the same site and say whether the progress is really taking place on the ground.
"The best way to promote responsible global citizenship is to live it -- actually do it every day," said Phil Watts, Shell's group managing director, at the start of the meeting. "Remember Seattle. Remember Davos. Remember Washington. If that's the alternative, then I think there's no alternative to engagement," with labour unions and environmental groups, he said.

But some companies and industry associations warned against over-zealousness in the new UN partnership. Maria Livanos Cattaui, secretary-general of the influential International Chamber of Commerce, said the original ideals of the Global Compact, which do not envision any monitoring or enforcement mechanisms, must be "nourished and protected."
She took that argument further, saying, "Business would look askance at any suggestion involving external assessment of corporate performance." The Global Compact, she wrote, "must not become a vehicle for governments to burden business with prescriptive regulations."

But Amnesty International's secretary-general, Pierre Sane, told the daylong forum that only independent monitoring -- with public reporting -- of the companies' performance would give the Global Compact credibility. Several environmental groups and human rights organisations from the developing world have criticised the initiative altogether, saying the United Nations shouldn't allow its good name to be used by companies that have committed abuses overseas.
Nike, for example, has been targeted by labour organisations for conditions at its factories in Asia. Shell has been criticised for environmental degradation around its oil fields in Nigeria.
Annan rejected the groups' argument during a press conference. "The fact that some of these companies may have made mistakes, may have done the wrong things, does not mean that we should not encourage them and work with them in moving in the right directions, in doing the right things, and being sensitive to the needs of the people in the society in which they operate," Annan said.

Source: AP
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