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UN: Organization Promotes Business As Partner In Conflict Zones

The United Nations has launched an initiative to revive war-ravaged countries with help from a non-typical partner -- the private sector. Officials from the business sector have gathered with representatives of the humanitarian and government sectors at a two-day conference to share ideas on how to work with the United Nations, including in conflict zones. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 1 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A new UN initiative is calling on private businesses to play a bigger -- and more responsible -- role in reviving and stabilizing the world's war-ravaged economies.

The call came on 31 May at the start of a two-day conference in New York promoting a new partnership between the United Nations and businesses. The conference has drawn hundreds of representatives from major global corporations, non-governmental organizations, and governments to explore the ways that business and the United Nations can work together.

The gathering follows the call last year by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for a "global compact" with business to promote respect for human rights, labor rights, and the environment.

Among the many areas seen as promising for joint UN-business partnerships are countries emerging from war. A prominent panel of business, human rights and government leaders said the role of business in post-conflict zones needs to be recognized.

Geoffrey Chandler is chairman of the business group of Amnesty International, one of the world's leading human rights organizations. He told the conference that businesses should realize that corporate commitment to human rights can help to strengthen justice and the rule of law -- and prevent conflicts. Chandler said by lax observance of international norms of human rights, businesses can also contribute to conflict.

"Companies do not and cannot have a neutral impact on human rights. Without appropriate policies, explicitly addressing the human rights implications of their operations, companies are likely to contribute to violations, and so to conflict."

So far, the Amnesty official said, only a small number of businesses are observing principled practices as outlined by the United Nations.

The United Nations is seeking to engage businesses through the UN Office for Project Services, or UNOPS, which some UN diplomats say is the most creative agency at the United Nations. UNOPS was founded five years ago as a spin-off from the UN Development Program.

UNOPS was traditionally involved in development and environmental projects, but has now diversified into projects including human rights monitoring and social rehabilitation in countries just emerging from war. One of its key distinctions -- UNOPS is the UN's only entirely self-financing body.

Its work includes de-mining projects in Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo. It has also worked with the private sector on environmental programs in the Aral, Caspian and Black seas, and on the Dnieper and Danube rivers.

UNOPS officials stress they are not engaged in philanthropy but instead seek to help carry out privately-financed projects in which UN mandates such as human rights are observed. For the private sector, the United Nations' broad involvement in crisis zones can provide a ready partner with good contacts on the ground.

The Swedish telecommunications giant, Ericsson, says the prospect of these useful contacts helped lead to its recent involvement with the United Nations.

A senior vice president of Ericsson, Lars Stalberg, told the conference that his company recognized during the massive movement of populations last year in Kosovo that mobile telephones were a commodity in great demand. But without a partner on the scene, Ericsson was unable to provide service in a swift manner.

Now the company has initiated "Ericsson Response," a project aimed at developing a faster response to disasters by providing mobile and satellite telephones for relief workers. Its partners include two UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Stalberg says global and local corporations should be concerned by their social profile, which plays a role both in attracting new workers and in attracting customers.

"Corporations make a mark on their environment. We have resources and the way we deploy our expertise, know-how, and power matters to the world outside."

The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, joined in the call for business to work closely with the United Nations in trouble spots. Holbrooke says sometimes private businesses are in the best position to make a difference in shaky, war-weary states. One area of emerging corporate responsibility, he said, is the world diamond trade, where some businesses are beginning to work with the United Nations to curtail illicit trade from African rebel groups.

Again citing Africa, Holbrooke noted that some of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies have begun cutting prices for drugs used to treat the virus that causes AIDS. Holbrooke said the private sector should also make dealing with refugees one of its priorities.