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Sinnners

The evils of business weigh heavily on the minds of campaigners here in Johannesburg.

Naomi Klein complained bitterly to this site about a merger between the goals of the United Nations and the goals of private sector.

Michael Dorsey, meanwhile, said the summit would only be successful if it moved away from advocating public-private partnerships with "corporate criminals."

And on August 31, illegal marches against globalisation and corporate greed are almost certain to dominate the news agenda.

Only the most radical of the radicals contemplate the abolition of the private sector, however.

So what do they want done to stem the tide of corporate sin?

More rules

The chief proposal is for a new framework of global rules. A system of "binding social accountability" which give citizens more rights and business more responsibilities.

Cheerleader for this approach is Friends of the Earth, busy lobbying for "strong language" on this issue in the final summit declaration.

Its case is simple. A voluntary approach is no good, it says. All that happens is that bad companies undercut good ones. Effective regulation is needed to level the playing field.

Surprisingly, business - or at least the type of business represented at the summit - agrees.

"It's a myth that we want a lawless wild west society," says Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, chair of the Business Action on Sustainable Development and ex-chairman of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of companies

Raising the stakes

So whatís the problem? It's a question of how much regulation and where it is applied.

As an opening gambit, at least, FoE are demanding what amounts to a radically different model of capitalism.

"At present," they say, "directors of publicly traded corporations have a duty to account to shareholders and maximise financial returns."

Their proposals would make companies accountable to a range of other stakeholders, such as the communities they operate in.

Directors would then be expected to balance profit with the interests of all those affected by their business.

Furthermore, they would be personally liable for any failings.

 

Internationalists

Business doesn't take the threat of stakeholder capitalism that seriously. Any attempt to construct such a complex system, it reckons, would inevitably flounder.

What worries it more is the principal that any regulation should be contemplated at an international level.

Ever since the Second World War, international trade negotiations have had one objective - to lubricate trade across borders and stop a tit-for-tat return to protectionism.

An international framework for corporate accountability would be something quite different.

FoE wants the new International Criminal Court to try directors and corporations for environmental, social and human rights crimes.

And this kind of threat has sent business leaders scurrying into the lobbies.

Game, set, match

Their lobbying has been business-like and effective - and one gets the impression they're a little irritated that the issue won't quite die.

"Go and ask the NGOs why no government wants this kind of one-size-fits-all regulation," Lord Holme, vice-chair, challenged Daily Summit.

Sir Mark Moody Stuart was more emollient. Regulation should stay where it belongs - at national level - he told us.

"The woes in the world are due to the breakdown of government structures locally," he added. "The collapse of government is not a problem caused by business - itís a problem that affects business."

Lost cause?

FoE, meanwhile, do not accept they've lost the argument. And they believe they have a new champion in South Africa.

"We've had a briefing from them and think they have an important point," South African trade minister, Dennis Erwin, told us.

"We're very pleased with the approach they are taking and we like the fact they've put forward concrete proposals."

Kind words. But it remains highly unlikely that the issue is going anywhere. For the moment, the rich countries may be listening to South Africa's point of view, but they will certainly strangle any proposals as the negotiations move to a close.

Privately, most campaigners accept this - but they have no intention of giving up. 

Their press conference today will focus exclusively on the issue. And the words "corporate takeover" will feature heavily in their statements next week on why the summit has failed.

David Steven | 28/08/02

 

 

[sidelights]

 

 

ďIt's a myth that we want a lawless society. 

The collapse of government is not a problem caused by business

It's a problem that affects businessď

 

 

 

 

 

 

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