While transnational corporations (TNCs) are subject to the jurisdiction of individual governments in respect of their activities within specific countries, the global character of these corporations has not been matched by corresponding coordination of actions by governments, nor by an internationally recognized set of rules, nor a system of information disclosure. For example, even though international production has become as important a fact of life as international trade, there exists today no international institution dealing with the activities of transnational corporations comparable with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) which are concerned with international trade.
Despite the considerable and transnational power which transnational enterprises possess they, unlike governments, are not directly accountable for their policies and actions to democratic electorates. Nor, unlike purely national firms, are the transnational corporations subject to control and regulation by a single authority which can aim at ensuring a maximum degree of harmony between their operations and the public interest. The absence of an international forum makes it very difficult to work towards the international arrangements and agreements which would harmonize relevant national policies and laws and provide a framework within which the global strategies of transnational corporations should operate.
In 1992, the aim of the industrialized countries was to have all discussion of the linkages between trade and environmental sustainability transferred to the GATT Uruguay Round where TNCs successfully negotiated a model for environmental deregulation such that unrestricted free trade takes precedence, under GATT rules, over environmental policy. All references to TNCs were deleted from the Agenda 21 arising from the Earth Summit in exchange for a promise of self-regulation by TNCs in the interests of sustainable development. Efforts by the UN towards a code of conduct were abandoned in 1992 as part of this process.
Without effective international regulations governing TNC investment and production policies, Agenda 21 will remain a set of empty rhetorical commitments. The world's largest 500 TNCs account for almost one third of the global GDP and control some 70% of world trade, with over 40% being carried out within TNCs. Consequently the way in which goods and services are produced and marketed is dictated by an increasingly smaller group of powerful corporations which frequently seek to turn low environmental standards into increased profit margins.