Global Policy Forum

Business Rules: Without our Protests, the UN is at Risk of Becoming Baby Brother to the WTO and IMF


Kenny Bruno


Let's take a quick acronym test. Do you know what B-A-S-D stands for? No?

BASD means Business Action for Sustainable Development, and it's one of the main reasons that you – you – should be finding a way to get to Johannesburg, South Africa.

What other things can BASD can stand for? We'll come back to that in a moment. First, some other reasons to come to Jo'burg this August.

The world's governments will all be there, making another last-ditch effort to save a deteriorating planet. Sitting side-by-side with governments will be the largest corporations, claiming they have the solutions to the world's environment and development woes. Royal Dutch Shell will be there, insisting that sustainable development means "planet, people, and profits". Sound familiar? Say, from the World Trade Organization, IMF, World Bank, and World Economic Forum? In fact, the WTO and World Bank will be in Johannesburg, too, making sure environmental agreements don't interfere with free trade and corporate rights. And 10,000 journalists will be there, looking for stories.

Another reason to come: George W. Bush will probably not be there.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), aka Rio + 10, aka Last Chance To Save The Planet, is the 10th anniversary of the first modern giant UN Conference, the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of '92. The global justice movement should be there. But, before we book our flights, let's decide something: Are we going to support the summit process, or oppose it?

The UN has its serious faults, but it stands for peace, security, human rights, human health, the environment, democracy, sanity. We need the UN, and these conferences are a chance to have our voices heard.

Moreover, if the WTO must shrink or sink, what will take its place? What intergovernmental institution will prioritize environmental protection over neoliberal investment rules? What global grouping should, in a just world, decide which is more important, corporate rights or human rights? The best answer seems to be: the one that represents We, The Peoples.
The United Nations.

Yet the UN has put the global justice movement in an awkward position – the Johannesburg Summit is going to be about partnerships with major corporations. The summit bureaucrats have even invented some new jargon to describe these partnerships: "Type II outcomes." At the US's insistence, the un has essentially given up on Type I outcomes, which are traditional, multilateral, negotiated agreements between governments. Type II partnerships are purely voluntary, piecemeal agreements aimed at getting private-sector money into un-friendly projects. They also put major corporations close to the heart of international governance.

Some of the new partners of the UN are the very same corporations that citizens movements are working against. For example, Shell and BP, two of the largest oil companies in the world, and two of the largest contributors to global warming, have signed on to the UN's Global Compact with corporations. So has Rio Tinto, a mega-mining conglomerate and bane of indigenous communities and labor the world over. So have Aventis and Novartis, among the top purveyors of genetically modified crops. Even Phil Knight of Nike, champion protagonist of globalization's race to the bottom, has had his photograph taken in front of the UN flag, shaking Secretary General Kofi Annan's hand and wearing a shit-eating grin.

And so, those of us who think these companies do not necessarily hold the keys to sustainability will arrive in Johannesburg ambivalent. We already know that the agreements reached in Johannesburg will fall far, far short of saving the planet. They will be WTO-compatible, free-trade friendly, and will not satisfy the Third World thirst for environmental justice. We will be tempted to bash the UN and it's servile attitude, but then, we want a stronger UN – a counterbalance to the WTO and ever-expanding corporate power. If Another World Is Possible, surely Another UN Is Possible, too.

So what to do in Johannesburg? That's where the BASD comes in. Business Action for Sustainable Development is a self-selected group of elite corporate environmentalists and corporate humanitarians flocking to South Africa to greenwash their images and make it seem like they are the most progressive and concerned sector of society. Their rhetoric will be more-sustainable-than-thou. Their PR will look like Sierra Club, Amnesty International, and Adbusters rolled into one. Their leadership comes from Shell and Rio Tinto. They will be calling the shots at the WSSD, as they have been calling the shots, directly and via the US, at other major conferences. They have to be monitored, exposed, and removed from power. That's our job.

BASD will have their own exhibition center and conference, where their parent organization, the International Chamber of Commerce, will give out Business Awards for Sustainable Development Partnerships. These companies, who claim to be part of the solution, are in fact the root of the problem, the root of what has gone wrong at the united Nations and in the Earth Summit process. With the world watching, we can point our collective finger at them (I meant your pointer finger, but whatever . . . ).

Yes, there will be – and should be – anti-globalization protests at the WSSD. But the message can be one of qualified support. We support the UN – but only a UN that is corporate-free and places human rights and the environment above free trade. We support an Earth Summit process – but not if it's a baby brother to the WTO and IMF. As the corporate sector loses credibility and their bad reputation rubs off on the UN, the UN will start to listen to us.

Meanwhile, we can take our protests to BASD and the Greenwash Gurus in Jo'burg.

Which brings us back to that acronym. The Greenwash Academy, an alliance of environment and development groups, is holding a contest to come up with alternatives for the BASD. We're looking for something that captures the essence of the organization, but with a little more zest. To get you thinking – about the contest, but also about corporate power and the world summit – here are a few of the entries so far: Business Against Sustainable Development, Business Artfully Suffocating Dissent, Bogus Action and Sleazy Deception, Business And Summit = Death

Kenny Bruno is UN Project Coordinator for CorpWatch, Campaigns Coordinator for EarthRights International, and co-author of the upcoming book – The Corporate Takeover of Sustainable Development (Institute for Food Policy). For more on the BASD contest and other greenwash news and actions, see

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