India: May 23, 2011. (CNS): As health experts gather in Geneva to attend the 64th World Health Assembly (WHA), global civil society organizations are calling on World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr. Margaret Chan to address widespread concerns about corporate conflicts of interest regarding global water governance, health and nutrition policy.
Corporate Accountability International, together with its allies at Baby Milk Action, delivered a letter to Dr. Chan signed by over 100 organizations and individuals from more than 24 countries. The letter urges Dr. Chan to ask UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to establish safeguards to prevent corporate conflicts of interests, and as a first step to withdraw the UN’s support for the corporate-driven CEO Water Mandate.
“If UN bodies act as if they have an open-door policy for transnational corporations, there is a huge risk that global policies will be distorted to protect their bottom lines. Agencies such as the WHO must ensure they are truly protecting our health, our food and our water,” said Mark Hays, Senior Researcher with Corporate Accountability International.
The WHA has a full plate this week – among other things, delegates will consider the WHO’s role in implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, which set benchmarks for improving access to drinking water and sanitation, and the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. In a development disturbing to many public health advocates, Member States will also consider a new proposal to create a World Health Forum – a multi-stakeholder body that, as currently proposed, would throw open the doors of the WHO to active participation from global food and agribusiness corporations to craft policy shoulder to shoulder with government officials.
“This new proposal risks undermining the WHO’s independence and effectiveness, and increases the power of the already hugely powerful corporate players that dominate global food nutrition and health policy,” said Patti Rundall, Policy Director for Baby Milk Action during an intervention during WHA proceedings. “We strongly urge Member States to reject this proposal.”
Commercial interests are also colliding with public health on the issue of access to clean, safe water. This week corporations involved with the CEO Water Mandate, a UN initiative lacking meaningful and binding accountability mechanisms, are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss efforts to assess water risks within the corporate sector.
The CEO Water Mandate is a corporate-driven initiative housed within the UN Global Compact, created in 2007 by the CEOs of several large water bottling corporations (Coca-Cola and Nestlé) and private water utility corporations (Suez and Veolia), among others. The official mission of the CEO Water Mandate is to assist corporations in becoming more responsible stewards of water resources within their own operations; however, the leading corporate endorsers have business models ultimately based upon the premise that water should be a high-priced commodity to be bought and sold.
“From the start, the creation of the CEO Water Mandate was a public relations maneuver used by water corporations. These corporations seek big profits from access to water at people’s expense,” said Richard Girard with the Polaris Institute. “As long as corporations with a vested interest in ensuring their profits have insider access to UN policy makers, people’s right to water and the lives of millions of families will continue to be at risk.”
In March 2011, the UN Joint Inspection Panel (JIU), an independent oversight body, completed a review of the UN Global Compact Office (home of the CEO Water Mandate) and the UN Office of Partnerships. The review raised significant concerns about the Global Compact’s ability to ensure its corporate partners are meeting their own voluntary guidelines and not merely using their association with UN as ‘bluewashing.’ These findings echo similar concerns raised by civil society groups around the world.
“It is far too easy for global corporations to use the UN as cover for business as usual,” said Bobby Ramakant with Asha Parivar in India. “Unless the UN adopts stronger oversight over such partnerships, how will the right hand ever know what the left hand is doing? The stakes are too high to simply trust that corporations know what is good for us.”
The WHO has enacted strong safeguards to prevent corporate conflicts of interest. For example, Member States continue to make strides protecting public health policy against interference from the tobacco industry due to implementation of Article 5.3 of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Article 5.3 establishes the tobacco industry’s fundamental conflict of interest with public health, encourages governments to reject partnerships with industry and avoid ‘revolving doors’ between industry and regulators. The WHO estimates that, when fully implemented, this groundbreaking treaty will save 200 million lives by 2050.
“FCTC safeguards are a powerful tool to challenge the deadly health crisis of tobacco addiction,” said Philip Jakpor of Environmental Rights Action/Nigeria. “Already, countries such as Thailand and Colombia have used the treaty to keep Big Tobacco out of the room when crafting national health laws, ultimately saving millions of lives.”