Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
University of Earth

6 March 2001

Challenges arising from the UN's Global Compact

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Part 5 of: "Globalization": the UN's "Safe Haven" for the World's Marginalized


Personal challenge for the UN Secretary-General

It has been said, cynically perhaps, that people only become eligible for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations if their characters and backgrounds are sufficiently flawed (in terms of the values of the time) for the permanent members of the Security Council to retain some extra "hold" over them during their period of office.

This was most evident in the case of Kurt Waldheim, whose double term saw a multitude of human rights resolutions condemning the perspective with which, unknown to many, he had been intimately associated during the Nazi period of World War II. In the case of Kofi Annan, it is difficult to imagine how any one could be more closely associated, in an official capacity, with two massacres and yet remain a credible appointee to the position of Secretary-General. But of course, in each case, he was just following orders, as has been the plea of others in authority in analogous situations - raising the question of how the legal positions are to be distinguished.

Under-Secretary-General for Peace-keeping Operations at the time of his appointment, brings to the position a wealth of experience and expertise gained through more than three decades of service with the world Organization. A national of Ghana who is fluent in English, French and several African languages, he was appointed on 17 December by the General Assembly to serve a term of office from 1 January 1997 through 31 December 2001. Mr. Annan has had a remarkably varied United Nations career, focusing not only on questions of management -- administration, budget, finance and personnel -- but also refugee issues and peace-keeping. He has also carried out a number of sensitive diplomatic assignments, including negotiating the repatriation of over 900 international staff and the release of Western hostages in Iraq following that country's invasion of Kuwait in 1990; initiating discussions on the "oil-for-food" formula to ease the humanitarian crisis in Iraq; and overseeing the transition from the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in former Yugoslavia to the multinational Implementation Force (IFOR) led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) following the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement.

His appointment as Secretary-General on 17 December 1996 followed a period as Under-Secretary-General for Peace-keeping. The UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, that had long been a thorn in the flesh to multinational corporations, was transformed into the United Nations Transnational Corporations and Management Division, as part of Department for Economic Affairs and Social Development in 1 Mar 1992. This ceased to exist in July 1993, when activities were integrated into the work programme of UNCTAD. Subsequent to that there has been a series of largely undocumented steps in the corporatization of the United Nations and the rehabilitation of the image of multinational corporations. The Global Compact is presumably not the final step in this undeclared, and seemingly unauthorized, process. However the Secretary-General may find himself abandoned by those who appointed him, in order to distance themselves from it, if it proves to be embarrassing. He may be in a "plausible deniability" trap.

In effectively promoting globalization as a "safe haven" for the world's poor, the Secretary-General makes clear that he has failed to learn from his involvement in the traumatic consequences of UN promises in relation to Srebrenica. But this time, his actions as standard bearer may set the stage for the death of more than 7,000 Muslims. There is an eerie parallel to his use of the UN to usher the poor into a global environment controlled by forces of an alien culture and which, for their own survival, can in no way afford to share the universal values he may naively assume they should. Will history see UN-style globalization as the Srbrenica of the world's marginalized?

Despite Srbrenica, in his pursuit of peaceful and harmonious relations with multinationals, the Secretary-General seems unable to recognize the historical lessons to be learnt from appeasement.

Challenge for international NGOs

There are many international "consultative status" NGOs who have been accredited with ECOSOC for three decades or more (or at least according to pre-Rio criteria). With the UN's new approach to civil society, to what extent is it meaningful to see these older bodies as the "Uncle Tom's" of the UN's real view of the international community and world society. And, as with this unfortunate civil rights analogue, is their tolerance of the arrogant, condescending airs and idiosyncracies of their "massah" to be considered characteristic? Should NGO be considered as an abbreviation for "Naïve Goody Optimist"? Does this not legtimate the perspective of the less international and increasingly activist NGOs?

The older NGOs, who partnered with the UN through periods of delicate balance between Cold War forces, well remember the emphasis placed upon their geographic representativity, the nationalities of their board members, the source of their funding, as well as issues concerning their members from countries sanctioned by the UN (South Africa, Taiwan, etc). Some may remember responding to Quadrennial Review Questionnaires regarding their status with ECOSOC in which the question of whether they had ever criticized the UN was asked. Clearly the thinking behind this question has re-emerged with the new category of "rejectionist".

In the light of the new UN strategy to develop strategic partnerships with multinational corporations, through its Global Compact and other arrangements:

Given the tacit UN acceptance of the practices of multinational corporations that are members of the Global Compact, to what extent has the consultative relationship led to the improvement of the conditions of NGO activity, notably with respect to:

Given the manner in which "NGO" has been extended, through the consultative relations provisions, to include a wide variety of continental, national and subnational bodies, often of questionable comparative merit:

Given the changing nature of the NGO-UN relationship, and the changing dynamics amongst NGOs concerned with this relationship:

To what extent would loss of consultative relationship (decided by the UN or the NGO) constrain future NGO involvement with the UN System, especially in an increasingly web-oriented environment:

Why should NGOs bother with the UN in future, in the light of its track record of its :

What can NGOs expect from the UN in future?

Has the consultative relationship procedure now become a mechanism through which NGOs are held hostage by the UN to constrain their criticism of strategies they believe to be against the interests of "we the peoples". This inference will of course be vigorously denied. Would one expect the proponents of such a strategy with respect to NGOs to do otherwise - especially if they are hired as charming, naïve PR mouthpieces for cynical strategies framed and carried out beyond their ken?

Challenge for multinational corporations

The main challenge for multinational corporations is whether they can successfully stigmatize any opposition to their strategy to make the world profitable for big business. The Seattle, Melbourne, Prague and Nice exercises are clarifying aspects of the challenge. The simplest response is to subsidize groups that can further marginalize their critics as irresponsible. The simplest approach to this is to ensure that there are those present at peaceful protests who will turn them into riots that can be labelled irresponsible. Unfortunately this is so obvious that care will have to be taken the strategy does not become embarrassingly apparent.

With respect to the United Nations (and other intergovernmental bodies), the door is now wide open to conclude cozy partnership arrangements with the many Specialized Agencies -- on the basis of patterns already explored with some of them.

Examples and possibilities for specific partnerships between the UN and transnational corporations include:

More creatively, corporations may however choose to associate with another undertaking with UN involvement that is not mentioned in Global Compact documents, namely the Global Reporting Initiative (see http://www.globalreporting.org) that provides companies with guidelines in areas which overlap those of the Compact..

Challenge for the United Nations

Perhaps the fundamental question is whether there is any coherent core left to the "United" Nations -- or whether anyone cares. The UN response in Rwanda and Srebrenica has essentially discredited and dishonoured it. Resolutions and treaties carry little weight -- even if they can be successfully negotiated and voted.

A variety of public information initiatives can be trumpeted to the world, but the public has built up awareness of the decades of non-delivery on such promises. A challenge to world governance reflected in problems at the national level.

The UN believes it has found itself a new set of friends. It will have to live with that choice and its impact on older friends that it has abandoned.

Perhaps the main hope for the future of the UN is as part of the "edutainment" industry in which its new friends can be supportive. It may combine this with a legislative variant -- possibly to be termed "legislainment" -- as a catchall phrase for its resolutions, declarations and global strategies.

Challenge for the planet: Lo-Cal Compact

The Global Compact is almost the exact reverse image of that with which many would argue that the UN should be associated. The more appropriate strategy might be called a "Lo-Cal" focus. This would place the emphasis on low-energy (low-calorie) strategies to reduce the environmental footprint of the strategies currently favoured by multinationals. These could be usefully distinguished as "Hi-Cal". Globalization in this perspective should be understood as "Hi-calization".

The UN's emerging predilection, shared with multinationals, is -- for what might by contrast be caricatured as "glo-bal" or "glow-ball" initiatives - articulated and sustained by endless glowing hype and consumer apathy, ungrounded in the reality in which people are increasingly obliged to live. Rather than the promotion of global business (shortly to be severely handicapped by future oil costs for transportation), why does the UN offer no focus on sustainable lo-cal initiatives. These would contrast with the unsustainable high-energy initiatives that are, ironically, causing the planet to "glow" increasingly (in the infra-red) -- but also have the sinister potential of resulting in a fiery end to the globe (as predicted by fanatics of the Apocalypse). This glittering image of globalization has the simplistic appeal of a child's ball -- illuminated or painted to glow as it is bounced. An image echoed in town high streets by the unsightly sprawl of illuminated franchise stores - controlled by glo-bal corporations.

A Lo-cal Compact, to counter the Hi-Calization tendencies of globalization, might have the following features:

A fundamental environmental dilemma for the UN is that the world must come to terms with the tensions between localization and globalization, or to put it in EU-speak "subsidiarity" and "open market". Society cannot, on the one hand, work towards taking decision-making to the lowest appropriate level (subsidiarity) whilst at the same time hindering/denying effective action-taking at the lowest level (eg in the case of a Danish municipality prevented from specifying a Danish cheese for its school canteens where the children prefer it). The policy challenge is surely that empowerment at the local level is a totally different process from empowerment at the global scale and the nature of their reconciliation remains to be determined.

Independent futurist, Hazel Henderson (1995), offers a critique of globalization indicating that it is creating a bubble economy at the cost of real, more local enterprises and livelihoods. She argues for the use of systems thinking and a more holistic approach as a way of breaking out of the narrow prism of GDP and market pricing that dominates conventional economic thinking. She sets out a panoramic vision of the changes required to reshape the global economy toward social justice and sustainability at every level from the global to the local and personal.

It is a supreme irony that the Global Compact should emerge from the essentially right wing perspective of the country that righteously consumes the highest proportion of the world's resources per capita and has long jeopardized the UN's finances by failing to pay its dues -- whilst seeking its emasculation by every means. It is also ironical that the principal spokesperson for the Compact, other than the Secretary-General, is from that country. The UN has been well and truly out-manoeuvered and trapped. It is effectively destroying itself and the hopes that people had in it. The Compact, or the substitutes by which it will be cynically replaced, is the death knell of the UN.

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