Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Looking for justice

I am disturbed by the news from China that two people have been executed for their role in supplying milk contaminated with melamine, which led to thousands of babies being hospitalised and at least 6 deaths. In the UK not even mass murderers face the death penalty. See:

The Chairwoman of the Sanlu company that sold baby milk containing the contaminated milk - even after knowing it was contaminated - was sentenced to life imprisonment, the BBC reports.

Even if you think the death penalty should never be applied, there is a marked contrast between long prison sentences and the lack of action against the executives of transnational corporations whose marketing practices undermined breastfeeding in China and elsewhere in the first place. Don't take this the wrong way - it is certainly not a suggestion these executives should be killed, but a suggestion that they should indeed end up in court and face an appropriate sentence for their willful and deliberate breaking of international marketing standards in the pursuit of increased profits.

Instead of this happening, we found the Chairman of Nestlé, the worst of the baby food companies, being given a platform at the World Food Summit to tell policy makers his views. See:

Nestlé executives also make much of their links with the UN Global Compact, a voluntary corporate social responsibility initiative introduced by then UN Director General, Kofi Anan, when others were pressing for regulatory systems.

We have registered a complaint with the UN Global Compact alongside other Nestlé Critics - see:

This is an ongoing process, so I won't say more about it at this stage. However, while pursuing this complaint we learned that Nestlé had offered a substantial sum to the UN High Commission for Refugees. This may or may not be directly linked to the review we are calling on the UN Global Compact Office to conduct, but it does raise questions about whether we can expect to have a fair hearing if Nestlé is a multi-million dollar donor to the UN.

At first sight it may seem that any money going into UNHCR initiatives must be good news, but Nestlé has stated in the past that it only pursues charitable endeavours if these will benefit shareholders. See:

In a case like this we might see Nestlé seeking to increase income by influencing UN policy and gaining routes to market for its products and using the link to try to divert attention from efforts to hold it to account in the many areas of its business where there are concerns.

Development organisations and health campaigners from around the world joined us in voicing concerns about the possible deal and it has been abandoned by UNHCR.

It is welcome the UN is not taking the money. Now we hope it will take the next step and conduct the review called for under the Global Compact Integrity Measures and exclude Nestlé from the Global Compact until it changes its policies and practices. Such changes have the potential to have a far greater impact on people's health and well-being. Remember, breastfeeding is the most effective health intervention with the potential to prevent more under-5 deaths than provision of safe water, adequate sanitation and vaccination.

UNICEF has stated: "Marketing practices that undermine breastfeeding are potentially hazardous wherever they are pursued: in the developing world, WHO estimates that some 1.5 million children die each year because they are not adequately breastfed. These facts are not in dispute."

The UN Global Compact is not even intended to be monitored or enforced and stresses that it focuses on 'facilitating dialogue'. Well, we have been 'dialoguing' with Nestlé and other companies with decades, but that doesn't force changes - exposés and consumer action prompt changes. Those are the strategies we need to use while the UN system is ineffective at enforcing the marketing standards and human rights norms that companies should abide by.


Annie @ PhD in Parenting.com said...

Great post Mike. There are so many instances of people in China doing what they feel they have to do in order to maintain their contracts with multinational corporations. The pressure put on them is immense. That doesn't mean that they should be absolved of their actions, but I agree that they should not be executed and that others (the executives of the multinational companies) should be held to account too.

This is true of melamine in formula, lead in toys, and so many other situations.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you posted that, Mike. I thought exactly the same thing when I read the news. What they did was wrong, but it's a flash in the pan compared to what others are getting away with on a daily basis.