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On Rights and Labor, Global Compact Is "Not a Watchdog" of UN's Own Compliance

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, July 5 -- As Ban Ki-moon kicks off the UN Global Compact summit, on the sidelines a debate has begun about the lack of enforcement or even evaluation of compliance by the corporations which brag of their membership in the Compact and links with the UN.

            Missing so far from the debate, however, is the question of whether the UN system itself complies with the principles it says it is promoting to corporations through the Compact.

            In the area of human rights, the "Global Compact asks companies to.... make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses." But in the past year and a half, UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been accused of torture, and the UN has continued to support the Ethiopia-based Transitional Federal Government in Somalia, even as it routinely fired ordnance into civilian neighborhoods in Mogadishu.

            The UN Development Program in 2006 supported violent disarmament by Ugandan soldiers in the Karamoja region, in which villages were torched, and children held hostage to be traded for weapons. UNDP in Zimbabwe has helped Robert Mugabe set up a "Human Rights Commission," while supporting Mugabe cronies in, for example, diamond mining.

            While human rights principles need enforcement on corporations, the UN itself shows a lack of accountability. UNDP has attempted to downplay or obscure its role in Uganda and Zimbabwe; the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services' audits of DRC peacekeeping, taking up to two years, are so slow as to be nearly meaningless. By the time findings are announced, the peacekeepers have gone home, outside the reach of any discipline by the UN. Most recently, UN peacekeepers in Kosovo who killed two demonstrators by shooting them with 13-year old, hardened rubber bullets left Pristina for Romania and have still not faced any justice.

            In a press briefing in New York to promote this week's summit, the Compact's executive director Georg Kell was asked  about the membership of Shell, whose operation in Nigeria stands accused of complicity in the murder of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Kell praised Shell's recent actions and did not address its record in Nigeria.

            Shifting the most recent of the Compact's principles, anti-corruption, Inner City Press asked Kell, at what point in its disintegration might Enron have been thrown out of the UN Global Compact? Kell's response was that companies too deserve due process, and that punishments are left up to each country's national courts.  So Enron could join and remain a member, it seems clear.

Mr. Ban in Geneva, July 2007

            "It is not possible to either suspend or expel participating companies in cases of substantive breach of the Global Compact's principles," Amnesty International's head of economic relations, Audrey Gaughran, told the press in Geneva.

  "What is needed are legally binding regulations to control corporate activities with respect to human rights," said Aftab Alam Khan of ActionAid, which has issued a report about the performance in Ghana of AngloGold Ashanti, a subsidiary Anglo American of chairman of Anglo American, the employer of Global Compact (and former HSBC) leader, Mark Moody-Smith, available here. These critiques have stopped short of assessing the UN's own compliance with the Global Compact principles.

            In the environmental field, UN Headquarters is notoriously full of asbestos, leaking heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. In the field of labor, the UN does not allow its employees to seek remedies in national courts, confining them to an internal justice system that Ban Ki-moon himself has admitted is broken -- while still seeking to retain the power to appoint the judges in the proposed new system.

            The UN system, alongside some workers with "permanent contracts," is full of insecure workers who face unemployment every month or two. Recently at UN headquarters, a whistleblower about UNDP's activities in North Korea sought the protection of the UN Ethics Office -- and two weeks later was put on a watch list, to be physically blocked from entering the UN buildings. His complaints about UNDP include corrupt payments to the Kim Jong-il regime, contrary to the UN Global Compact's tenth principle against extortion and bribery.

            At two press briefings in New York in recent weeks, Inner City Press asked Georg Kell and Melissa Powell of the Global Compact what steps, if any, have been taken to ensure the UN's own compliance with the ten principles of the Compact. Ms. Powell to her credit acknowledged that the principles had not been explicitly addressed within the UN's Office of Human Resources Management, and that following the Oil-for-Food scandal, implementation by the UN's procurement department slowed. Georg Kell said, "We are not a watchdog of the UN."

            Physician, heal thyself...

Click here and here for earlier Inner City Press coverage of the UN Global Compact in the past month, here for more

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540