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WEF critics target multinationals

NGOs are using the WEF summit to pressure multinationals Keystone

Non-governmental organisations say they will focus on the power of multinational companies during this year's World Economic Forum in New York.

This content was published on January 15, 2002 - 16:58

The Public Eye on Davos -- so-called because the forum has until this year been held in the Swiss winter resort of Davos -- brings together critics of the WEF in a parallel conference that is open to the public.

Beginning January 31, under the slogan "No License to rule the World", the Public Eye will call for an international convention requiring multinationals to abide by environmental and social standards. Like the WEF, the conference ends February 3.

The Bern Declaration and Pro Natura, two Swiss NGO's, plan to send representatives to the Public Eye conference, which will be held in Manhattan just a few blocks from the WEF.

Applying standards

Christine Eberlein of the Bern Declaration said the primary target of the Public Eye conference would be multinational companies.

"We want these companies to have common social and environmental standards," Eberlein told swissinfo, "Our main objective is to lobby for a change in this field, so that big businesses have to abide by the standards which, for example, apply in their home countries."

Many environmental groups like Pro Natura are concerned that multinationals are not applying the environmental standards they must obey at home when they invest in developing countries.

There is also concern that some companies are exploiting workers in developing countries by paying low wages.

"The policies of these large corporations can damage the environment," Pro Natura's Miriam Behrens told swissinfo, "What we want is an international convention to make companies abide by high environmental standards."

"The same goes for social standards," Behrens added.

United Nations support

Pro Natura believes the UN would be the right body to introduce and implement a new convention on environmental and social standards, and will use the Public Eye conference to launch a campaign calling for UN involvement.

"We want the UN to lead the way in this matter," said Behrens. "And we want the new convention to have the power to impose sanctions on companies which don't abide by the standards set out in the convention.

Such a convention, if it is ever to come about, will need at least some support from WEF members as well, but while Pro Natura's international parent group Friends of the Earth will have two delegates at the WEF itself, the Bern Declaration currently rejects dialogue with WEF organisers.

Public relations

"We decided we don't want open dialogue with them yet," said Christine Eberlein. "Klaus Schwab (WEF president) is interested in public relations, but not in making any genuine commitments."

"We don't want to be used in a public relations exercise, so unless he agrees to take part in a common forum with us, outside the WEF, we don't really want to participate in talks with him."

New York's advantages

One positive aspect of this year's forum, according to the non-governmental organisations, is the fact that the venue of New York will make alternative discussions and even demonstrations much easier.

The New York authorities have in fact already agreed to an official anti WEF demonstration, which will take place in Manhattan on February 2.

"New York will be very different from Davos," said Eberlein. "In Davos the authorities never really tolerated official demonstrations, but in New York we will have one, and there will be all sorts of other street activities as well."

Eberlein, however, said the Bern Declaration had not yet decided whether to participate in the official demonstration.

"We need some reassurance that it will be a peaceful event," she explained. "We are a non-violent organisation and we won't take part in demonstrations where violence is intended."

WEF 2003

Of course, the big question that has yet to be answered is where the WEF will be held next year. Klaus Schwab and his colleagues have said they might like to return to Davos, but would also consider other venues.

For WEF critics, though, the venue is not really important. Instead, organisations like the Bern Declaration say they will continue to focus on the issues.

"To be honest we don't really care where the WEF is held," explained Eberlein. "What is important is that it becomes more democratic. We will continue to fight for a transparent public forum where important issues are discussed."

"What we don't want is an isolated, island WEF, which becomes a secret club."

by Imogen Foulkes

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