Corporations at the United Nations: Echoes of the New International Economic Order?

During the 1970s, a coalition of developing countries known as the G-77 launched a far-reaching effort at the United Nations to realize a New International Economic Order (NIEO). At its core, the NIEO was a plan to transform what was, from the perspective of this coalition, a profoundly inequitable international economy biased against the global south. This program of structural reform and global redistribution was presented as a precondition for meaningful development in the Third World but also as a natural and necessary extension of the anticolonial project more broadly, since sovereign equality among states required economic as well as political selfdetermination.

Much of the scholarship on the NIEO, both at the time and since, has focused on the issue of permanent sovereignty over natural resources as the most contentious proposal advanced by the G-77. Indeed, the very willingness of northern countries to engage the Third World agenda at the United Nations had much to do with the uncertain (and for the oil-importing countries, anxiety-producing) international context precipitated by the oil crisis of 1973.This essay focuses on a different plank in the NIEO platform of economic self-determination: the regulation of multinational corporations. United Nations Resolution 3201, which declared the establishment of a New International Economic Order, was adopted during the Sixth Special Session of the UN General Assembly in May 1974. Among the twenty principles that the Resolution identified as the basis for this new order was the regulation and supervision of transnational corporations by states, which were empowered to take “measures in the interest of the national economies of the countries where such transnational corporations operate on the basis of the full sovereignty of those countries.”Concretely, the project to regulate corporate power came to center on the negotiation of a Code of Conduct by the Commission on Transnational Corporations, a body created by the Economic and Social Council shortly after the declaration of the NIEO. For well over a decade, an Intergovernmental Working Group of the Commission pursued the drafting of a Code, supported by a research organization within the UN Secretariat known as the Center on Transnational Corporations.

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