The International Board of Directors (IBD) of Franciscans International met in Assisi, Italy from 11 to 14 May 2023. After significant deliberations, prayer and discernment, on 13 May the IBD appointed Blair Matheson TSSF, to be the new Executive Director of FI. He will replace Brother Markus Heinze OFM on 1 January 2024.

Blair is an Anglican Third Order Franciscan from New Zealand. He and Br. Markus will work together during the transition period from now until the end of the current calendar year. The Board recognizes the tremendous contributions by Br. Markus, who, over the past eleven years, guided FI through significant changes toward both organizational and financial stability.

The members of the IBD look forward to working with Blair and the dedicated staff of FI as we continue to stand up for human dignity, care for creation, and promote peace, defending human rights and raising these concerns at the United Nations and to the international community.

Photo from left to right: Markus Heinze OFM; Blair Matheson TSSF; Michael Perry OFM; Carlos Trovarelli OFMConv (liaison from the Conference of the Franciscan Family); Charity Nkandu SFMA; Carolyn Townes OFS; James Donegan OFMCap; José Eduardo Jazo TOR; and Joseph Blay OFMConv.

We are delighted to be launching our new website today! For the past year and a half, Franciscans International has been working to build a website with one simple goal in mind: making our work more accessible to you.

We warmly invite you to have a look around and hope that you’ll share our enthusiasm. Before you visit, we’d like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the new features that we are most excited about.

Franciscans and the United Nations

Franciscan values are at the core of our advocacy at the United Nations. The new website features more information about how we connect these two worlds and how it shapes the work we do. We have also added new sections with stories about the sisters and brothers that advocate at the UN and with resources that explore the roots and spiritual dimensions of our work at the United Nations.

Improved access to our resources

All our advocacy interventions, tools, and publications are now easily accessible in one section. The website is built with a new functionality that will allow you to search through and filter these resources based on their type, subject matter, date range, and the countries and regions covered. We added a similar functionality to help you navigate through our past annual reports and newsletters. Finally, an improved general search bar at the top of our website will also allow you to find what you look for more easily.

Get to know us in six languages!

We want to make sure that our work is accessible to everyone: that’s why our new website is available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. You can easily switch between the different languages by selecting your desired option at the top and the bottom of the screen. Although we’re doing our best to make our content available in all languages, if there is no translation available, the English version will still appear by default.

Understanding our work

Franciscans work on a wide variety of issues across the world – we realize sometimes this can get complicated. You can now find a simple overview of how we translate this work at the grassroots into concrete action at the United Nations. We’ve also added new sections where you can read up on our thematic and regional advocacy and see our latest activities in each area at a glance.

Supporting Franciscan voices at the UN has never been easier!

Last but not least, we can only amplify Franciscan voices at the United Nations thanks to the generous support of our donors. However, this should not be the complicated part. We’ve updated our donation platform to make things as easy as possible for anyone who wants to support our work. Through the new website you can make a contribution – big or small – with just a few clicks. Spread the word! 

Tell us what you think!

We hope that you will enjoy this website and all its new feature. Together with the experts at Longbeard, we’ve done our very best to make the work of Franciscans at the UN as accessible as possible. We invite you to share your feedback with us, so we can continue to improve.

Franciscans International is recruiting an International Advocacy Director to orient and lead our international advocacy work, oversee the implementation of our advocacy strategy, and coordinate our advocacy team in Geneva and New York.

Does this sound like you? Send us your application by 31 May 2023.

You can find out more about the position and how to apply here.

Image: UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré

Franciscans International participated in the twenty-second session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York, focusing on “Indigenous Peoples, human health, planetary and territorial health and climate change: a rights-based approach.” During these two weeks, FI had the opportunity to meet with grassroots and other partners, including the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) and the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), whose delegations included individuals from the Amazon in Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Many interventions by Indigenous groups focused on the so-called “energy transition” and raised concerns over the extensive mining of Indigenous lands and consequent impacts on the environment and human rights.

Building on its work at the UN in Geneva, FI called for support for the ongoing negotiations toward a legally binding instrument to regulate transnational corporations under international law. FI previously raised the negative impacts of business activities on Indigenous Peoples during a high-level side event at the 20th session of the UNPFII.  

FI also shared recommendations with some members of the UNPFII to include language on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (R2HE) in the final report, following the recognition of this right by the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council in 2022 and 2021, respectively. Brother Rodrigo Péret OFM also joined FI during meetings on the margins of the forum and made a presentation to the Mining Working Group on extractive issues and on how civil society organizations across the world can work together to counter these trends.

We welcomed the draft report of the UNPFII, which reiterated FI’s recommendations on the following issues:

  • On the R2HE: “The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, the right to health and development and the rights of Indigenous Peoples must be seen as interconnected and must be strengthened in intergovernmental negotiations as essential elements of an integrated planetary health governance framework.”
  • On a legally binding instrument: “The Permanent Forum welcomes the ongoing international efforts to develop legally binding instruments that ensure accountability and due diligence by transnational companies. The reflection of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in such instruments is essential.”

FI will keep monitoring developments on related issues as well as the implementation of key recommendations. We will also continue to advocate for better protection of Indigenous Peoples against human rights abuses caused by business activities. To learn more about FI’s commitment to elevating the voices of Indigenous Peoples, especially in the context of extractive industries, have a look at our article on ‘working toward business accountability at the United Nations’.

The Philippines has experienced severe human rights violations in the past decades, especially linked to the “war on drugs” by former President Duterte (2016-2022). His term was defined by threats, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and harassment of human rights defenders.  

Meet Sister Susan Esmile SFIC, who belongs to the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.* In 2008, she was assigned as the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Coordinator of the Philippine North Province. Since then, she has worked to protect people at risk, feed the poor, strengthen communities, and support the victims of injustice.

What are the main human rights issues in the Philippines and how do these relate to your work?

Violations of the right to life, right to food, clean water, and shelter, as well as corruption, are the main human rights issues in the Philippines. People living in poverty are the most vulnerable, and when they are not able to study or lack better opportunities, they sometimes can fall into the trap of selling drugs. During Duterte’s “war on drugs”, thousands of people disappeared or were found dead. Under Operation “Tokhang”, the police were allowed to raid suspects’ homes without a warrant.

They were supposed to persuade them to surrender and stop their illegal activities. In reality, most of them were unlawfully killed, often in their own homes. We visited the wake of the victims and tried to console the bereaved families with our presence. We gave a little financial help to the poorest, especially when those killed were the families’ breadwinners. We tried to organize and gather the families of the victims living in the same area and referred them to other institutions that can help them address their traumas.

What inspired you to start work on human rights issues, and how does it connect to your calling as a Franciscan Sister?

For me, our commitment to God means embracing the cause or the mission of Christ. This means the protection of life, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the captives, etcetera. It is a tall order for me if I want to be Christ’s disciple. Believing that Saint Francis of Assisi has followed Jesus and the Gospel almost verbatim, I feel that this is also my calling – to be faithful in following his example of total dedication to the cause of Christ.

Can you give examples of people you helped protect?

Many people were being hunted or run after by the military because of their political orientation or because they witnessed extrajudicial killings. In 2007, a corruption scandal involving then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was exposed by Mister Rodolfo Jun Lozada. He received many death threats from the people involved in that scandal, so I was usually the one to accompany him to the hearings.

We also took care of the family of a young girl who witnessed the killing of Kian de Los Santos, one of the numerous victims of the “Tokhang”. For more than a year, we accompanied the witness at court hearings to ensure her safety and give her moral support. Of course, there was always the risk of being caught by the police, the military, or vigilantes while transporting the person from one place to another, especially if it was someone high-profile.

What is your proudest achievement?

I invited victims of human trafficking and families of the victims of Duterte´s war on drugs, and I asked them to share their experiences with the sisters as a way of helping them release their pains and sufferings and to find support from them. As for the sisters, it made them more aware of what is happening in our society so that their prayers for the victims of injustice are more concrete after meeting personally and hearing first-hand experiences of the victims. During the pandemic, we also asked for donations and worked with some groups and individuals in providing help: goods like rice, canned goods, and vegetables, through community pantries to the poor, especially those who have lost their jobs.

According to you, what is the difference between charity and human rights work? And do you think they complement each other?

Charity and human rights are similar in many obvious ways. They are both acts of compassion and recognition of the dignity of the individual person. But charity is more about giving material goods to the poor whereas human rights work is addressing the roots of their suffering. There is no obligation to charity. Human rights work is something more – it is a necessary commitment.

* The SFIC is a member of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP) now called the Conference of Major Superiors in the Phils (CMSP). One of the mission partners of this institution is the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Commission (JPICC) whose members are the JPIC representatives from the different member congregations.

Around the world, people commit to the protection and promotion of human rights. While some choose to focus on a specific issue, such as the right to water or extreme poverty, others work with certain groups like women, children, Indigenous Peoples, or migrants and refugees. They can work individually or with others, professionally or not, and in many ways: this can for example be through the collection and dissemination of information, advocacy at the local, national, and international levels, or by supporting victims.   

Whether they know it or not, their contribution towards dignity and justice through peaceful action makes them human rights defenders.  

Human rights defenders (HDRs) play a vital role in our societies. They are instrumental in implementing our fundamental rights, meaning their work benefits us all. However, this is not without challenges, and by working towards more justice, they also risk exposing themselves to harassment, death threats, and other forms of intimidation. The large scope of threats and reprisals against HRDs motivated the UN General Assembly to adopt the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998.  

Susan Esmile SFIC
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For the first time, the HRDs’ essential contribution to society was recognized, at the same time as their right to be protected. The Declaration clearly states that defenders have a right to defend human rights, to associate freely with others, document human rights abuses, as well as access protection from the UN and regional mechanisms.  

This year will mark the 25th anniversary of the Declaration. On this occasion, we want to shed light on the women and men in the Franciscan family working for the respect of fundamental human rights in different regions of the world. The Franciscan values of equal dignity, peace, and care for all creation are at the heart of their commitment. In this series, we are focusing on the sisters and brothers who are at the forefront of helping marginalized communities and populations whose most basic rights are violated.  

To quote Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs, “human rights defenders are ordinary people who do extraordinary things”. In this spirit, many Franciscans fit the definition perfectly – true human rights defenders, working for a better tomorrow. 

As we mark World Water Day and UN representatives, civil society, and other stakeholders gather for the Water Conference in New York, we must confront a dire reality: like UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently stated, “the world is woefully off-course to achieve our goal of water and sanitation for all by 2030.”

In regions already experiencing water scarcity, which is now increasingly exacerbated by the triple-planetary crisis, corporate interests are further driving and aggravating the situation. Indeed, in 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment reported that businesses are “a major contributor to water pollution, water overuse, and degradation of freshwater ecosystems […]” While often cloaked in the language of development, these projects frequently lead to human rights violations, including when free, prior, and informed consent is not given by Indigenous Peoples.

One such example can be seen in Guatemala, where Franciscans International works closely with Indigenous Q’eqchi communities, who have taken a stand against hydro-electric projects that divert their sacred rivers. Already, this has destroyed much of the plant and marine life that traditionally sustained these communities. Those demanding their right to meaningful consultation and to consent about the project have instead been criminalized and, in some cases, jailed on spurious charges.

“The  Cahabón Riveris sacred, it’s a source of food and life,” says sixteen-year-old Nikte Caal, a Q’eqchi environmental defender, who recently spoke at an event during the UN Human Rights Council about her activism and her father who was jailed for his human rights work. “It is our duty to defend the ecosystems and biodiversity and to fight for the life of our Mother Earth, to fight for our life and that of the next generations. We cannot be observers of the destruction of our environment. We must inform ourselves of what is happening and act.”

This is not an isolated phenomenon: Franciscans International has worked with communities facing similar violations in numerous countries, from Brazil to the Solomon Islands, where extractive industries and large-scale agricultural projects, amongst other sectors, deprive people of their right to water.

So how can we heed Nikte’s call?

Acting requires international efforts, including by the United Nations and its Member States. While the Water Conference is an important step, States must move beyond voluntary commitments and political declarations. The time for action and for States to fulfill their obligations under international law is long overdue. This includes implementation of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment at national level. We also call on States to negotiate on and adopt a  treaty to regulate and hold to account transnational corporations and other businesses to adequately address violations of the rights to water and to sanitation in the context of by business activities.

Accordingly, businesses should also answer Nikte’s call, including through implementing human rights and environmental due diligence.  In this area, wWe are encouraged by somee valuable initiatives, such as the development of the mega-project cycle by Leo Heller, the former UN Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation, as a tool that can help strengthen the resilience of affected communities as they claim their rights and seek to prevent the risks stemming these projects. Similarly, Pedro Arrojo, the current Special Rapporteur, has identified sustainable practices in managing water systems by Indigenous Peoples, that serve as a template for others.  

We must continue to hear from Nikte and other voices from the ground. While water is a universal necessity, it is clear that the impacts of climate change, as well as other causes of water scarcity and pollution, are inequitable. We must finally act upon “leaving no one behind.”

Events co-sponsored by Franciscans International during UN Water Conference

  • Scoping Solidarity: Societal Dialogues for Water Justice
    21 March 2023, 15:00-17:00 EST, in-person.
  • Extractives on Water and the Environment: Protecting and Accountability through a Human Rights Framework, 23 March 2023, 14:00-15:00 EST, online.
  • Hearing the Unheard: Human Rights to Water & Sanitation
    23 March 2023, 15:00-16:30 EST, online.

The Human Rights Council will convene from 27 February to 4 April. During the session, we will raise various human rights situations and concerns shared by our partners at the grassroots.

You can find all our statements below. This page will be updated throughout the session.

• • •

End of Session: Key outcomes and missed opportunities (4 April)

In a final join statement, we reflected on the key outcomes and challenges of the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council. Among other issues, we welcomed the adoption by consensus of a resolution on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Nevertheless, we also expressed our concerns over ongoing attempts by some States to question whether this is indeed a universal right, despite its recognition by the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. We further raised the role of civil society in the Council’s deliberations, which continue to be restricted after the emergency measures adopted because of Covid-19. In particular, we called for the continuation of hybrid modalities, allowing for remote participation for those that are unable to travel to Geneva.

• Full statement (English)

Item 6: Universal Periodic Review – Brazil (28 March)

During the adoption of Brazil’s UPR, we welcomed the support of all recommendations related to the right to a healthy environment, the right to water, and those related to mining activities. This is a key step considering the regressive measures, laws, and policies adopted in recent year. However, we also called on the government to take quick and proactive action to implement them, while ensuring that victims of human rights violations, especially those resulting from business activities, are guaranteed an effective remedy.

• Full statement (English and Portuguese)

Item 6 Universal Periodic Review – the Philippines (27 March)

In a joint statement, we welcomed the acceptance of important recommendations regarding the protection of human rights defenders and the commitment to investigate cases of extra-judicial killings. However, despite the change of narrative by the new administration, we remain concern about the gap between public discourse and the reality on the ground. During the adoption of the UPR, we raised several recent cases from the Philippines and reiterated our call to establish an international mechanism to investigate cases related to the “war on drugs” policy.

• Full statement (English)

Item 6: Universal Periodic Review – Indonesia (27 March)

Although Indonesia accepted five recommendations related to the human rights situation in West Papua, five others were only noted, including one regarding a visit by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In a joint statement, we called for the swift implementation of recommendations relating to the protection of human rights defenders and to ending impunity for human rights violations. We reiterated that the human rights situation urgently needs a sustainable solution that can only be achieved through a peaceful and inclusive dialogue and by ensuring accountability for all perpetrators of all human rights violations.

• Full statement (English)

Item 4: General Debate – Guatemala (22 March)

Attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala have doubled in 2022. These aggressions against justice operators, journalists, Indigenous communities, and organizations and individuals who defend the right to land, territory, and a healthy environment are carried out with impunity and threaten democracy in the country. In a joint statement, we reiterated our call to the Council to use its preventive role before the human rights situation in Guatemala reaches a point of no return.

• Full statement (English and Spanish)

Item 4: General Debate – Sri Lanka (22 March)

Nearly four years after 269 people were killed in the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, victims are still waiting for justice. Several official reports have not been fully published and none of the major recommendations that were published have been implemented. There has been no prosecution for criminal negligence of any state officials and no prosecution of the master minds responsible for the crimes. In a joint statement, we called on the Sri Lankan government to hold the perpetrators accountable. We further urged the UN High Commissioner for human rights to support international justice initiatives related to the Easter Sunday Bombings. 

• Full statement (English)

Item 4: General Debate – Brazil (22 March)

While acknowledging the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples by the new administration in Brazil, we alerted the Council that Indigenous Peoples still suffer serious threats and attacks on their fundamental rights, lives, and territories. It is essential that the new government immediately resumes a demarcation policy to protect Indigenous lands and turns its promises into action. In a joint statement, we asked the Council to remain a vigilant attitude toward Brazil to ensure that the new administration makes concrete progress in guaranteeing the territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples.

• Full statement (Spanish)

Item 3: General Debate – Mozambique (17 March)

A violent conflict and the slow onset of climate change have displaced more than 1 million people in Northern Mozambique. This multifaceted crisis has created acute food-insecurity with the situation especially dire in camps for internally displaced persons, where there is limited land and food aid available while housing has been destroyed by extreme weather events. We urged the Government of Mozambique and other UN Member States to comply with their international obligations, as well as to provide immediate humanitarian assistance in Cabo Delgado and the surrounding provinces.

• Full statement (English)

Item 3: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment (10 March)

With our local partners, we witness that discrimination impairs women and girls’ enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment, as well as a range of other human rights. In turn, this deprives humanity of the potential and steward ship of half the population. In this statement, we brought two specific cases from the Solomon Islands and Mozambique to the attention of the Special Rapporteur. To protect the powerful role of women and girls as agents of change, we also called on the Council to acknowledge the recently recognized right to a healthy environment in its annual resolution on the topic, as well as in all relevant UN resolutions in the future.

• Full statement (English)

Item 3: Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to food  – Guatemala (9 March)

In Guatemala, government policies mostly benefit agrobusinesses and extractive companies, while negatively impacting vulnerable populations. In a joint statement, we raised our concern over the implementation of extractive projects without prior consent of Indigenous Peoples, even though they are directly and negatively affected. We also raised the issue of plant biodiversity and loss of ancestral knowledge. Considering all this, we called the Council to urge Guatemala to adopt policies that address and alleviate threats to adequate food and promote food sovereignty.

• Full statement (English and Spanish)

Item 3: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing – Guatemala (9 March)

Guatemala is at risk of extreme weather events, aggravated by the climate change. In 2020, hurricanes Eta and Iota left hundreds of people homeless or with severely damaged house. In a joined statement, we raised our concerns over forced evictions that are often carried out violently and without prior notification, without accommodating for resettlement measures. This situation disproportionately affects Indigenous Peoples. During the Interactive Dialogue, we called on States to scale up the resources available to mitigate the impacts of climate change and to refrain from evictions that put people in even greater vulnerability.

• Full statement (English and Spanish)

Item 2: General Debate – Guatemala (8 March)

Guatemala is facing a human rights and rule of law crisis, aggravated by the weakening and co-optation of public institutions. There is widespread harassment and criminalization of human rights defenders, with more than 2.000 attacks documented in 2022. In a joint statement we called on the Council to use its preventive role before the situation reaches a point of no return and to urge Guatemala to guarantee judicial independence, to prevent and investigate attacks against human rights defenders and justice operators, and to guarantee a transparent electoral process.

• Full statement (English and Spanish)

Thumbnail: UN Photo / Pierre Albouy

As Franciscans we know that violence and war must never be tolerated. We join the Ministers General of the Franciscan First Orders in their call for peace and stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and our brothers and sisters that remain in the affected regions.

“These fact sheets are an important tool to support the work of indigenous people and human rights defenders’ activities. With these, they familiarize themselves with the vocabulary, design and formulation of recommendations emanating from different United Nations human rights mechanisms.”

Francisco Cali Tzay, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples

Our fact-sheets aim to support the work of indigenous activists and human rights defenders working on issues related to Indigenous Peoples. Franciscans International also hopes that they will serve as a tool to become familiar with the vocabulary, design and formulations coming from the different United Nations human rights mechanisms and that they will facilitate advocacy work at the national, regional, and international levels.

Each fact-sheet is dedicated to a different theme and contains a general description of the problem, some general and specific recommendations, and a section dedicated to other authoritative sources related to each issue.

While the recommendations are related to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them can be adapted to address human rights situations more generally.

You can download the combined fact-sheets here. They are also available in Spanish, Portuguese and Q’eqchi, and cover the following topics:

Access to health care and vaccines General non-discrimination clauseWomen and gender-based issues
Access to COVID-19 informationFree, prior and informed consentTraditional medicine
Water and sanitationRight to adequate foodHuman rights defenders