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Business Scales World Summit - U.N. Signals Openness to Corporate View, Irking Activists

Johannesburg, South Africa, 27 August 2002 - The United Nations is delivering a new message at the World Summit on Sustainable Development: It is open for business.

The U.N. is providing a stage for multinational corporations to deliver their pitch that private investment is helping to raise the global standard of living while protecting the environment. By the end of next week, the U.N. is expected to bless dozens of partnerships between business and nongovernmental organizations that tackle issues such as AIDS and the environmental impact of oil and gas development.

While most of the attention here is focused on the intricacies of diplomatic texts, what is emerging as a broader issue of contention is a push by business and the U.S. government away from new environmental targets and toward voluntary partnerships.

The tie-ups are being touted by corporations that say they are tired of the U.N. cranking out new environmental and social targets that they regard as onerous and counterproductive. To those supporters, the partnerships are a sign that the U.N. is beginning to buy their message that the best way to help the developing world is to make it a place where corporations can reliably make a buck. To detractors, including a host of activist groups, the partnerships prove the U.N. has abdicated its role as global watchdog to the unchecked forces of international capital.

For the U.N., often criticized as ineffectual, the emphasis on partnerships is the latest in a series of steps to work more closely with business.

That shift comes amid an increasing sense that something has gone wrong during the past decade, as many of the targets that governments set for themselves at the U.N.'s last big environmental summit, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, haven't been met. That conference led to global commitments such as the Kyoto global-warming treaty, which lacks key support from the Bush administration. Even if enough other countries do sign on to put it into effect, exactly how individual governments will meet their targets remains unclear, analysts say.

Now, business executives argue it doesn't make sense for the U.N. to set new targets before the ones it already has made are achieved. "If you say, `OK, folks, we haven't met those targets, but let's set new ones,' if we did that in business, our stock would go south fast," says Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, the former chairman of oil concern Royal Dutch/Shell Group.

Sir Mark is making the rounds in Johannesburg as world business's ambassador to the U.N. He heads Business Action for Sustainable Development, a group that represents multinational corporations that have sent their own delegations to Johannesburg.

But to many environmental activists, who plan protests to counter a "Business Day" that the multinationals have set for Sunday to trumpet their green commitment, the partnerships to be endorsed by the U.N. smack of a sellout.

The business officials rolling out their partnerships in Johannesburg "are folks doing what they would do anyway and coming to the summit and getting a stamp of approval from the U.N.," says David Waskow, international policy analyst for Friends of the Earth. The environmental group is lobbying for strict global standards of corporate accountability in the text that the delegates produce, and language that makes clear that companies can be sued in their home countries for destructive practices abroad.

U.S. officials argue that such language would defeat the purpose of the partnerships. "When I hear people call for some U.N. global structure of monitoring, I think that's unproductive and stifles the kind of creativity we're looking for," says John Turner, an assistant secretary of state and head of the U.S. delegation in Johannesburg. "The problems are so immense that governments cannot do it alone." The U.N. says the partnerships aren't intended to take the place of official agreements among governments. "These are voluntary partnerships," a U.N. official says. "It's very difficult to come up with something binding."

Hand in Hand?

A few of the pending partnerships that multinational companies are touting as preferable to new U.N. targets

Purpose: Improve access to AIDS care in the hardest-hit regions of the world.
Lead Organization: United Nations AIDS program
Main Partners: Merck & Co., GlaxoSmithKline, UNICEF, World Bank

Purpose: Phase out leaded gasoline in Sub-Saharan African countries by 2005.
Lead Organization: International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Organization
Main Partners: World Bank, United Nations, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Purpose: Develop tools and guidelines for integrating biodiversity into oil and gas development.
Lead Organization: Center for Environmental Leadership in Business
Main Partners: BP, ChevronTexaco, Fauna & Flora International, Smithsonian Institution

Purpose: Promote low-emission methane-powered vehicles.
Lead Organization: Fiat
Main Partners: Italian Ministry of the Environment, Unione Petrolifera: Italian Oil Industry Association
Sources: World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the International Chamber of Commerce