Guest Editorial

The UNCED Farce

SHOCKINGLY ABSENT from preparatory negotiations for the meeting of world leaders at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, also known as the "Earth Summit") in Rio in June are proposals for the international regulation of big business and multinational corporations to ensure that they reduce or stop activities that are harmful to human health, the environment and development.

 Documents related to Agenda-21, UNCED's action program, refer to the role of business and industry only in the context of strengthening the rights of major groups, such as women, youth, indigenous people and non-governmental organizations. UNCED is treating corporations as entities which should be relied on to help protect the environment, rather than ones whose activities are destroying the environment and should be strictly regulated.

 The UNCED Secretariat is emphasizing the adequacy and willingness of big business to regulate itself. This is dramatically manifested in the Secretariat's promotion of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (made up of corporate representatives) at a time when the UN Center for Transnational Corporations (UNCTC, the main UN agency responsible for monitoring multinational corporations) has been "restructured" into something called the Transnational Corporation and Management Division.

 At an UNCED preparatory meeting in New York in April, two proposals for corporate environmental accountability were withdrawn. Sweden withdrew a proposal calling on corporations to adopt full-cost environmental accounting, and the G-77 grouping of Third World countries and China dropped a proposal calling for the establishment of a framework for global corporate environmental management.

 Instead, participants at the New York meeting approved several proposals which look to business as a protector of the environment. Among them was a call to seek the cooperation of multinationals in exploring the use of market mechanisms in the energy, transport, health, forestry and other sectors.

UNCED should be moving in exactly the opposite direction, seeking to rein in, not unleash, multinational corporations.

 Multinational corporations are the entities primarily responsible for the global environmental crisis. For example, multinationals in the petroleum, auto, chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), electricity-generating and energy-intensive metals industries and in agriculture account for roughly 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent UNCTC study.

 There is a wealth of evidence showing that the sort of self-regulation advocated by the UNCED Secretariat is not an adequate substitute for public regulation of industry. It is also clear that individual governments, many of them economically smaller than the multinationals, cannot sufficiently regulate business on their own, especially in an atmosphere of intense economic competition, where companies pit countries against each other to lower environmental, health and safety standards.

 For the UNCED to be more than a charade, it should adopt measures such as the following:

 Reliance on "market forces" and the failure of self-regulation are responsible, in large part, for the world environmental crisis. The time has come for greater and more effective monitoring and regulation of multinationals, the economic agents whose present and future behavior will determine the fate of the earth.