Multinationals and the United Nations:
A Working Paper

by Prof. John J. Bonsignore
Department of Legal Studies
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, Mass 01003

413- 545-5877

This is an excerpt from the larger paper, published here with permission from Prof. Bonsignore. Email Prof. Bonsignore for the entire document. The paper was presented at John Madison College, Michigan State University, as part of a conference on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations (1995).

"The United Nations is a cipher. Its too bad, but that's what it is."
Colleague in history at the University of Massachusetts

"The United Nations is the world's most elaborate wastebasket."
John Humphrey 1

"I take it as given that 75% of conference diplomacy is hypocrisy."
Laurie Wiseberg 2

"History has bequeathed to us an organization that is a proven instrument of international cooperation . It represents the highest aspirations of the world's peoples for a world free of war, poverty, repression and suffering."
Boutros-Boutros Ghali 3

From Prof' Bonsignore's introduction:

In the estimation of many scholars the burden of proof has shifted to the proponents of the United Nations to demonstrate its worth as a major force in the improvement of human welfare. That the United Nations for all its initial promise might be nothing more than a cipher affirms this sentiment.

Start of excerpt:

Rights law, crafted by specialists, is enforced with the assistance of experts schooled in rights theory and practice, and committed to addressing injustices through some adjudicative body with jurisdiction. All are insiders who are at least in some sense committed to existing human rights systems, regardless of real prospects for making rights good through their invocation.

How can one stand outside these regimes or sufficiently close to their margins to get an outsider's viewpoint of the worth of these regimes? The struggle for rights by indigenous people best instructs us on the nature, function and limits of international human rights. Indigenous people are both inside and outside conventional law- government systems national through international, an odd position for people who have often been in a place from time out of mind. Their struggle can be viewed first in terms of the conceptions of the indigenous people by non indigenous people -- the meaning of the indigenous struggle to the non indigenous. These conceptions turn out to be excellent proxies for the place of the multinational corporation in the non indigenous imagination.

This first dimension of the indigenous rights debate tells us more about ourselves than it does about indigenous people. It is like a Rorschach blot test for our preferences in international economy, revealing our ideas about the past, the present, and desirable futures, into which the internationalization of enterprise has made greater and greater intrusions. We are told every day that we are part of a global economy to which we must adapt everything from our overall mindset to schooling to career aspirations. To the extent that we do not want to go where we are being told to go, we might be becoming more like "wild Indians."

The second dimension-- which should be put first, but for the need to get an overview of the importance of the indigenous rights question for multinational study, and to get non- indigenous agendas out of the way-- concerns the conception of the struggle by indigenous people themselves. What is their view of the past, the present, and desirable futures and how do these translate into demands for particular forms of law- government? For example, do indigenous people want international legal order in which rights are secured, state orders in which they have secure places comparable to those of minorities , or the status of independent nations on a par with heretofore recognized states? Can indigenous demands be squared with multinational corporate prerogatives that are increasingly the order of legal orders virtually everywhere?

As noted above, our conceptions about indigenous people probably say as much or more about us than they do about the indigenous people themselves. Chris Tennant posits that over the last roughly fifty years there have been different representations of indigenous people by the non indigenous, each with dramatically different implications on development policies. The NOBLE PRIMITIVE, currently in ascendancy, represents "not only what has been left behind by modernity, but also [provides] a site for millenarian aspirations for a transformation and redemption of modernity through a 'return to the primitive.'" 4

This appeal of the primitive can also be designated "retrospective radicalism," which like classical romanticism attests to a disaffection with the rounds of life characteristic of modern living. 5 The primitive connotes the integration of what have been rendered disparate chambers of life, freedom from alienation, insulation from corruption, and whatever else has been lost in the grand fall from unity and grace that modernity connotes. Twenty odd years ago in his sweeping distillation of human history, W.I. Thompson spoke of the rounds of a so-called primitive hunting group where all men were hunters and at most only part time specialists in the roles of headman, hunter, shaman and clown. 6 Unique proficiencies and inclinations were there, but the men were not devoured by specialization.

The political thrust of the noble primitive into the debate of future world economic orders needs little elaboration. The noble primitive imagery constructs a pre-capitalist world. and exposes the "crudeness of a... moneyed order," 7 and all of its inhumane imperatives. Claims of "development" or "progress" that have frequently been associated with transformations of economic activity are discredited when earlier is elevated to better. Words identifying losses and decay undercut the promise of "better things for better living through chemistry."

The rival image of the IGNOBLE PRIMITIVE takes the non indigenous dreamer in the opposite direction with differing implications for economic questions:

"... no written language, no horses or wheeled vehicles, slavery and starvation...not uncommon, wars with neighbouring peoples... and there is no doubt... that aboriginal life in the territory was, at best, 'nasty, brutish and short" 8

Not an object of envy or psychic veneration, the ignoble primitive is set up for assimilation at best, or extinction at worst; humane rehabilitation may be possible, but continued existence as a cultural, social, political and economic community is not.

Returning to Tennant before moving on to how indigenous people have defined their own agenda with the implications on multinationals and the United Nations, he found a reversal in the discourse on primitives in the fifty year period he surveyed. From 1945-1958 he found the ignoble primitive conception to predominate. Primitive peoples were conceived as backward, lacking in civilization, ignorant, lazy, and living at the Stone Age level. Health, diet, hygiene, and clothing were needed to improve their standard of living. 9 It is not accidental that this conception of the primitive as ignoble coincides with the post-World War II boom in the multinationalization of enterprises, "nation-building" in the post-colonial world. These grand changes often came at the expense of indigenous people, and were marked by increasing penetration of indigenous territory and cultural space. With the ignoble primitive model in place, this penetration could be explained as a worthwhile change for everyone, indigenous people included. Otherwise, to quote one commentator, indigenous people will be left "standing by the side of the road, watching the... cars go by,... eyes awash in an endless sea of tears." 10

In the 1971-1993 period the conception of noble primitive resurfaces. The timing of this rebirth coincides with the rise in costs associated with world-wide industrialization and agribusiness. Indigenous people are conceived as better caretakers of land and the environment, owing to a non material relationship to their surroundings. In this vision the indigenous are "victims" and offer to the world a critique of so-called progress and signal a need to return to indigenous values. According to this conception, "development" of the type and scale that multinationals foster engenders unalloyed disaster and not universal salvation.

To summarize, activists for the rights of indigenous people framed three critiques of the modern world via their definition of the primitive: a critique of the modern relationship with nature, a critique of individualism, and a critique of the contemporary global order. Indigenous people stand for sound husbandry unless pushed to the brink by outside forces; valid communities; and the strictly local. 11 In the words of one activist, "The indigenous peoples of the world retain our collective evolutionary experience and insights that have slipped our grasp." 12

While the ignoble primitive can be relegated to the past, the noble primitive informs the present: as witness to a noble past, as a mirror image of dismal modernity, and as a paradigm for a possible future when the world wakes up from the contemporary nightmare and creates harmony with nature, rediscovers community, and establishes sustainable economy. The deep structure of this shift in the conception of the indigenous is an intensifying disenchantment with economic development, and this means development premised on the multinationalization of enterprise. Accompanying this growing disenchantment with multinationals is a growing disenchantment with law-government systems at all levels. After all, these regimes have been co-principals in the subversion of values that indigenous peoples are deemed to represent.

Before turning to other subjects one could also ask how activist activists really are and whether their activism is in the right place against the right enemies? What if instead of being a cheering section for the indigenous in their ongoing struggle against a number of powerful governmental and non governmental entities, indigenous rights activists began a struggle of their own against these powerful entitles -- and not in remote places with unpronounceable names and unknown geographies, but instead in their own capitals. The indigenous should not be the sole front line soldiers with advocates for them in a safe rear guard getting extra credit for "support." Advocates might open a second front by challenging multinationals in the countries where they are headquartered on a number of questions closer to home -- the power that has been amassed via the rule of law, the system of subsidies to the largest enterprises ranging from the monetary to the diplomatic and military, domestic human rights violations (resurgence of racism, capital punishment, prison building-- the new growth industry); renewed military adventurism (sometimes via the United Nations) increased concentration of US based enterprises, disappearance of American small farmers; declining small business; proletarianization of US labor; privatization; and capital flight. This shift in focus says nothing about the merit of indigenous claims. Nor does it impugn the compassion of people for the welfare of others. It says that political marriages of quiet convenience are better replaced by more direct agendas.

So much for the indigenous rights debate in non indigenous terms. What about the indigenous perspective? Putting aside semantic distinctions about who qualifies as indigenous and the fine distinctions that can be made between indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, setting aside the debate over the number of indigenous groups (The debate can range from claims that indigenous people are disappearing, to identifying 5000 to 6000 nations, a total that dwarfs the 190 states recognized by the United Nations.), and further dodging the question of the number of people of the world who are indigenous (I have seen estimates up to one third of the world's population.), the indigenous movement seems to be consequential for two reasons:

(1) The movement is decentrist. Despite there being different agendas ranging from total independence and control of lands and political process to simple recognition and more say within a given state, the indigenous rights movement as a whole is decentrist, and being so, runs contrary to states, interstate regimes, and multinational corporations. The battle between indigenous peoples and states can be the most highly visible. (Indigenous peoples deny the claims of states to control them by virtue of their being "recognized"; as antecedent to recognition they call into question what states take to be routine exercises of sovereignty over citizens within a geographic boundary.) The United Nations in supporting the indivisibility of recognized states is thus put on a collision course with the claims of indigenous peoples, notwithstanding numerous rights declarations and the UN's proclaiming 1993 to be the year for Indigenous People.

It is true that indigenous people have invoked the help of the United Nations for recognition as nations in their own right, but on closer study it appears that the invocation is limited, and does not constitute an unqualified endorsement of the United Nations or world regimes as ones in which indigenous peoples are willing to take their places. In the end, the movement appears to be more separatist than integrationist. That indigenous groups want recognition to fend off the legitimacy of control by mere states, does not necessarily prove that they want wholesale incorporation into centrist regimes. If the governments of states, say that of the United States or Canada, appear to be too illegitimate, distant and estranged from indigenous people, would a regime based in Geneva be more appealing?

The movement also runs counter to multinational corporations. It is in conflicts with multinationals and their surrogates that the true nature of the indigenous movement manifests itself. Both the multinational corporations and the indigenous groups are "on the ground" and encounter one another in direct and abrasive ways. The multinationals are on the ground through forestry, mining and other profitable uses of land. Via agribusiness, the conflict may come when the so-called "highest and best uses of land from a world market perspective" run contrary to indigenous uses of land for subsistence. Where industrialization replaces traditional economic systems of subsistence agriculture, craft production and local trade, indigenous people become part of the nomadic labor force which has become a growing presence in every city of the world.

As development strategies unfold, indigenous people find themselves in conflict with governments as well as enterprise. For example, a road or dam ought not to be crudely described as "national development," the euphemism that covers gross intrusions into areas that have been homelands to indigenous people (nations). Such projects make visible the intersection of development, state governments, multinational corporations, international lending agencies and indigenous people, as the rebellions at proposals for dam building in the Philippines and Costa Rica demonstrated. In the Amazon Basin, made public through Congressional hearings, building roads with international funds facilitated mass settlement, deforestation and displacement of indigenous people, activity not unrelated to lumbering, cattle raising and gold mining.

It is the World Bank, a creature of the United Nations, which finances such projects. The World Bank's establishing its own mechanism by which dissatisfied groups can challenge such projects attests to decades when development, international banking, and international enterprises were too casually linked, and operated in derogation of the welfare of indigenous people who were harmed by projects but never consulted. Whether the conflict mechanism introduced by the World Bank will have any impact on projects remains to be seen-- its recommendations are advisory.13

The decentrist tendencies of the indigenous movement put the movement on a collision course with both the centers of political power and the dominant ethos espoused by multinational corporations -- whole ecosystems and the people in them treated like mineral deposits to be extracted until they are exhausted. Realists will say that the political power of all governments, from local governments to the United Nations, will be arrayed against indigenous claims so as to reduce them to their least intrusive impact. This can be accomplished most readily by separating the line of discourse from the line of action; promise everything through a variety of pious and largely unenforceable declarations and stop there; plenty of meetings with travel allowances for the impecunious, but nothing done. The line of action will continue to be dominated by those countries seeking development, international lending agencies, and multinational corporations. Economic realists predict that the only course for indigenous peoples is assimilation and taking their places in the international economic order. If their prophecy holds, destruction will be done in the name of benevolence and inclusion, and will not be considered genocide .

end of excerpt


1. Quoted in P. Alston, The UN's Human Rights Record" 16 Human Rights Qtly 376.

2. Human Rights Tribune Nov., 1993, 3.

3. Boutros-Boutros Ghali, Statement on the UN 50th Anniversary.

4. C Tennant, Indigenous Peoples, International Institutions and the International Legal Literature from 1945-1993, 16 Human Rights Qtly (1994) 7.

5. Id. 8.

6. W.I Thompson, At the Edge of History (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) 75-78.

7. Tennant, op cit, n 36, 8,9.

8. Id., 9. Tennant quotes a Canadian judge here.

9. Id., 13-16.

10. Id. 15. (Tennant quotes Esquivel Casas from El Problema del Indio.)

11. Id., 17-19.

12. Id. 19. (Tennant quotes Julian Burger)

13. The World Bank conflict mechanism can be found on Internet--World Bank. It should be noted that the mere creation of a conflict mechanism says nothing about its independence,or the penetration of the mechanism into the day-to-day workings of the Bank. The "decision" of the newly created unit is advisory. At its worst, what is publicized as a forum for dispute resolution could simply be a way for the Bank to legitimatize its actions and allay the criticism which has been levelled at the Bank's practices.
Return to course syllabus or packet: "Indigenous peoples - Global Issues"