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Franciscans International (FI) is a NGO linked with Misean Cara member organisation the Franciscan Missionary Union that has Consultative Status to the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). FI is one of 25 Misean Cara members with this auspicious status. This is the highest status granted by the UN to NGOs and allows them to participate in the UN, and to make submissions. FI was granted ECOSOC status in 1995. FI’s vision is for a global community built on Franciscan values, in which the dignity of every person is respected; resources are shared equitably; the environment is sustained; and nations and peoples live in peace. In this blog post, we highlight FI’s work at the 5th session of the UN Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations this year.

Just after midday on Friday 25th January 2019, a dam in Brazil holding back waste products from iron-ore mining collapsed. Over 18 million cubic meters of tailing tore through nearby barracks where workers were having their lunch. 256 people died in the Brumadinho disaster. Fourteen others are still officially considered ‘missing’. The environmental damage of the toxic mud will impact the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people living downstream of the dam in years to come.

In the aftermath it soon emerged that the mining company Vale, which owned the dam, had repeatedly ignored warnings that it was unstable.

“We went to the ministries. We mobilized. We did everything we could. But they lied to us – they looked us in the face and lied to us,” the Brazilian activist Carolina de Moura Campos would later recall during an event at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva.

While the neglect of Vale led to a sudden disaster, other violations are more systemic. This is true for the right to water for example. In 2019, a new study found that El Salvador is projected to run out of water in 80 years. In this country, large-scale industrial projects have had a disproportionate impact on water consumption and pollution. Although a network of grassroots and faith-based groups including Franciscans successfully lobbied for a ban on metal mining, the situation remains dire, as over 90% of the country’s surface water is still contaminated by untreated sewage, and agricultural and industrial waste.

The adverse impact of business on human rights has been increasingly recognized by the UN in recent years. This has led to ongoing negotiations towards a new international treaty that would hold transnational corporations to account, but also to individual efforts by independent human rights experts.

However, none of this can happen without the shared experiences of the people most directly affected. Represented throughout the world and driven by their commitment to preserve human dignity and nature, many Franciscans have found themselves close to these affected communities, or at the frontlines when violations happened.  

Franciscans International (FI) has been serving as a bridge between them and the UN for over 30 years. We do so by facilitating the direct participation of activists like Carolina and community leaders in international debates at the UN so that their voice can be heard, but also by translating their experiences in expert advice to relevant stakeholders.

One example of the latter is the ‘mega-project cycle’ developed by the UN Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation this year. This framework was only published after extensive consultations, including with FI and its partners on the ground in the Americas. Not only does this framework identify 7 stages and the potential violations associated with them, it also offers concrete steps that communities can take to defend their rights.

However, even when these voices are heard, there can still be an enormous distance between what is decided in the rooms at the UN in Geneva and New York, and the lived reality on the ground. Simply sharing information is not enough. This is why FI empowers Franciscans and their partners at the grassroots through trainings and workshops. Together, we explore how they can actively and effectively defend their communities and put pressure on authorities through the UN system using a rights-based approach.

This year’s Human Rights Day marks 71 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which codified many of the values already lived by Franciscans and other religious communities for centuries into international law. However, these promises remain unfulfilled for many across the world. Only through our combined efforts and continued dialogue can we change this.

Photo caption: Carolina de Moura Campos of theAssociation Jangada Brumadinho’ speaks at a side-event during the 5th session of the UN Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations in Geneva in October 2019.