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The U.N.'s Backdoor Effort at International Corporate Regulation
Even the most respected organizations can turn rogue. In this case, the International Organization for Standardization, also known as ISO, threatens to go far beyond their traditional technical mission.

ISO develops and publishes international voluntary consensus standards. Usually low profile and the province of engineers and other specialists, international standards have long played an important, even vital role, in international commerce. ISO has published over 13,000 standards on topics ranging from weights and measures to procedures for sterilizing medical equipment.

Recently, ISO has decided to go beyond their technical mission and venture into the realm of corporate governance. More specifically, ISO is developing an international standard on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Even ISO "acknowledges that social responsibility involves a number of subjects and issues that are qualitatively different from the subjects and issues that have traditionally been dealt with by ISO."

Although ISO is formally composed of national standard-setting organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the United Nations and affiliated organizations and various NGOs will participate in the developing the CSR standard. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has praised ISO's decision to develop a CSR standard as "an initiative which dovetails well with the universal principles of the UN Global Compact on human rights, labour conditions, the environment and anti-corruption."

Organizations that ISO has identified as potential participants in developing the CSR standard include the International Labor Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and Amnesty International. The two countries leading the CSR project are Brazil and Sweden. ISO noted that "Strong support for ISO to launch an SR standard has come from its developing countrymembers..."

Although ISO standards are voluntary, anyone with military experience can tell you that the term "voluntary" can have various meanings. Voluntary standards are often adopted into regulations and gain the force of law. The Chair of the working group developing the CSR standard explained "ISO's future SR guideline standard is of great interest to stakeholder groups such as regulators, labour and nongovernmental organizations..."

ISO has stated that the CSR standard "will be applicable to all types of organizations" regardless of their size, location, activities, products and the "culture, society and environment" in which they operate. The working group's Vice Chair stated, "Our ambition is to develop guiding principles with global relevance that will be useful to organizations worldwide in establishing, implementing, maintaining and improving the way they address social responsibility."

It is clear that the intent of ISO, and the United Nations, is to develop a standard that will eventually govern how corporations conduct their business. Given the track record of many developing countries and the U.N. when it comes to respecting freedom and supporting international commerce, companies may want to keep a close eye on the CSR standard development process. Some companies may even want to consider preempting the ISO process by developing their own corporate responsibility standard.

  • Click for ISO Social Responsibility homepage.

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