World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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RIGHTS: NGOs Demand Stricter Hand with Transnationals

By Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Aug 2 (IPS) - A group of civil society organisations is pressing the United Nations (UN) to strengthen the commission entrusted with investigating the effects of transnational corporate activity on human rights.
The non-governmental organisations (NGOs) demanded before the UN Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights that governments regulate the behaviour of transnationals and, instead of dictating codes of conduct, the world forum must promote binding international instruments for compliance.

The Sub-commission, made up of 26 independent experts who advise the UN Human Rights Commission, began its annual session this week.

The NGOs' concern is based on evidence that the current political-economic context is marked by the unprecedented power of transnational corporations around the world.

Over the last 20 years, transnational power has doubled, and the effects of their activities reach all spheres of life, according to a report by the Centre Europa-Tiers Monde, the American Association of Jurists and the Fundación FICAT of Barcelona.

But instead of taking action, the UN abandoned the research it had underway about the scope of transnational corporate activities and their social responsibilities.

The UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, created in 1975 to conduct such studies, disappeared in 1992, complained the NGOs.

To replace it, they said, an ''association'' of transnationals and various agencies has been proposed, referring to the Global Impact initiative UN secretary-general Kofi Annan launched last week in New York.

The debate on transnationals returned to the UN via the Sub- commission on Human Rights, which in 1994 asked the Secretariat to prepare a document on the history of the relationship between full exercise of human rights and the activities of these companies.

Sub-commission member El Hadji Guiss, of Senegal, wrote the report and proposed in 1997 that a working group should be created with a broad mandate to study the issue. The Sub-commission's decision to create the new body, taken in 1998, was well received by human rights activists.

The working group met for the first time in 1999, but the NGOs pointed out that it had assumed its role with limitations. During the inaugural session, there was an attempt to reduce the group's mandate, restricting it to cover codes of conduct for transnationals only.

This intent received encouragement from the office of the UN secretary-general, said attorney Alejandro Teitelbaum, of the American Association of Jurists.

The codes of conduct drafted by the transnationals themselves rarely include fundamental human rights, and because they are voluntary, there is no system to implement sanctions for non- compliance, he pointed out.

María Prandi, of the Fundación FICAT, said her organisation opposes the working group's discussions on a new voluntary code of conduct, to be approved by the Sub-commission on Human Rights, because the codes lack enforcement mechanisms.

Voluntary and pseudo-legal instruments are part of the Global Compact strategy supported by the industrialised countries of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with the consent of the UN and its secretary-general, said Prandi.

Teitelbaum told a meeting of experts on the issue that among the corporations supporting the Global Compact are some that are suspected of committing serious human rights violations, ''such as British Petroleum, accused of financing paramilitary squads in Colombia, because it is the leading foreign investor'' in that country.

The civil society groups question what they see as a UN tendency to support an excess of voluntary codes of conduct, because the transnationals write them ''to suit their needs'' and apply them based on what other corporations are doing.

The working group needs to begin by identifying the subject of its research, in other words, the transnational corporations, and then embark on all issues related to the consequences of their activities using the broadest conception of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, according to the NGOs. (END/IPS/tra-so/pc/mj/ld/00)

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