75 years ago, as the world emerged from the horrors of World War II, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration of Human Rights. Today, it remains a unique document that places the inherent dignity of all people as the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace.

From the outset, the Universal Declaration has resonated deeply with Franciscans. Looking at the example of Francis of Assisi – whose own faith was shaped through his experience as a soldier – it is easy to see how this document dovetails with his own uncompromising belief in human dignity.

Yet, as we mark this anniversary, it is also painfully clear that the realization of these values remains a distant reality for many, whether because of conflict, extreme poverty, or the environmental crises we face. Together with their allies, Franciscans remain committed to putting the words of the Universal Declaration into practice, through both direct action at the grassroots and at the UN.

As part of the celebrations around the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights organized a two-day high-level event in Geneva. During this meeting, UN Member States and civil society organizations were invited to take part in a “pledging tree” to offer their concrete commitments to human rights.

Markus Heinze OFM, FI’s Executive Director, used the occasion to deliver the following statement:


“Franciscans International appreciates the opportunity to express our pledge on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For nearly 35 years, Franciscans International has built bridges between Franciscans working at the grassroots level and the United Nations.

With the support of our team of human rights experts in Geneva and New York, the concerns of Franciscans and the communities they represent are brought to the attention of the international community.

Bringing together these two worlds, Franciscans International advocates for human dignity and environmental justice, using a rights-based approach.

Today, we celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Tomorrow, we continue our efforts to help realize the promises it holds for all of us.

Therefore,

We pledge to work toward a global community in which,

  • the dignity of every person is respected,
  • resources are shared equitably,
  • the environment is protected,
  • and nations and peoples live in peace.

Thank you.”


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.  

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Coming soon

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.  

As December 9, 2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the Declaration, 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. 

Among certain ethnic groups in northern Benin, a child’s characteristics at birth and in the months that follow are crucial to its survival. From their position during delivery to the way they are teething, they can be accused of being a “witch” child. According to traditional beliefs, they then becomes a curse for their family and the whole community and must be eliminated. 

We met with Brother Auguste Agounpké, who has been involved in the fight against ritual infanticide for over 20 years. Although a lot of progress has been made since then, including the criminalization of the practice by Benin in 2015, it has not yet completely disappeared. Indeed, while abandonment is now more often chosen instead of killing, children accused of witchcraft still suffer from stigmatization and exclusion. We were able to discuss the local awareness-raising activities in which Brother Auguste has been taking part in, as well as his commitment to international advocacy. 


 Could you introduce yourself and your work on ritual infanticide in Benin?

My name is Auguste, I am a Capuchin friar and I work for Franciscains-Bénin. The first time I heard about so-called witch children was when I was sent on a mission to the north of the country in 2003. For me, it was strange, because this is something that doesn’t exist in the south. One day, a parish catechist came to alert the parish priest that an eight-month-old child was about to be executed because his first tooth had appeared on his upper jaw. We immediately got in the car and drove to the village. The parents were there but had no right to speak. It was up to the grandfather to decide the child’s fate. He agreed to let us take his grandson with us but confirmed that he would kill him if he saw him again. Then we had a second case, a little girl who had also started teething on her upper jaw. Her mother, who saw it right away, went to live with her parents for a while, so no one else would notice. But years later, she finally confessed it to her husband. Their daughter was already 9, but the father still wanted to get rid of her, so we had to rescue her. In total, we have saved a dozen children in this way. 

What are the different reasons why a child can be accused of witchcraft?

In addition to teething, which must begin with the lower jaw, the child’s position at birth is also very important. Indeed, the newborn must fall on its back while looking at the sky: if it comes out through the feet, shoulder, or breech, it will have to be put to death. As most women give birth at home, a village midwife is often in charge. But some of them take advantage of being the only ones allowed in the room – and thus able to witness the child’s position at birth – to settle scores. They may even lie in order to harm the woman giving birth, if they have had a dispute with her, for example. Finally, the number 8 is a bad omen in the tradition of the Bariba ethnic group. If a woman gives birth prematurely at eight months, this is not accepted. Similarly, a child should not grow their first teeth at eight months. 

What happens to the women who bring these children into the world?

As long as they agree to eliminate their child, there is no problem for them. However, if they decide to keep their child, they too will be in danger. I experienced this first-hand when I was up north. The niece of the bishop I was living with gave birth to a child in a “bad” position. With all the awareness-raising we had done in the region, she wanted to protect her child, and her husband, not being from the same culture, had no reason to want to sacrifice his baby. However, the mother’s family attached great importance to traditional beliefs. She and her husband had to flee the village to protect their child. If she had stayed, her life would also have been at risk. 

What were the main stages in your fight against ritual infanticide?

In 2007, we were invited by Franciscans International to attend a training course on the use of UN human rights protection mechanisms. I was with a Franciscan sister that I didn’t know at the time, Sr. Madeleine Koty, who had already saved five children from ritual murder. I had saved three. We decided it was important to bring this issue to the attention of the international community and submitted a report to the UN a few months later. Two countries responded immediately with recommendations to ban the practice. Back in Benin, we continued our awareness-raising work in local communities where the phenomenon is rife, and in 2012, with FI’s support, our NGO Franciscains-Bénins was created. By combining international advocacy with awareness-raising at the local level, I can say that, after years of work, things have changed a lot, and these children are no longer being systematically killed. However, fear persists, and children who are not born “the right way” continue to be abandoned. Occasionally, we manage to persuade a family to keep their child, but this remains the exception. 

Can you give us an example of an awareness-raising action you’ve carried out?

In northern Benin, we organized a week-long training course for five midwives. Some of these midwives have retained the tradition of telling their families the exact position of the child at birth. So, we worked with them to encourage them to keep the secret between the midwife and the mother. This project began last year and is due to run until 2025. We will also be continuing our awareness-raising campaigns in schools, with teachers, and among various sections of the population. I believe that these campaigns at different levels are essential if we are to succeed in changing mentalities. 

What are the next steps in your work to protect so-called “witch children”?

We are currently building a temporary center to take in children rejected by their families and keep them safe. The idea is that they can stay there while we find them a foster family, which can sometimes take months. We try to choose families who are sensitive to this issue and who are close to the children from a cultural and religious standpoint. Finally, we provide a monthly contribution to their overheads. This project is currently underway and is scheduled to run for the next three years. 

More information on the work of Franciscans-Benin and FI on the issue of ritual infanticide.

For more information, check out our main article on Franciscans at the Forefront of Human Rights.

Over the next two weeks, 140 world leaders and over 70.000 other delegates, ranging from religious leaders to corporate lobbyists, are expected to descend on Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the UN Climate Conference. Here, they will assess the progress made toward realizing the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The urgency is clear: COP28 has been preceded by several scientific reports, whose findings are both increasingly dire and, sadly, effectively ignored.

The window to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius is rapidly closing and would require radical interventions. As things stand, even fully implementing the promises already made by governments to cut emissions will still push temperatures up to 2.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Worryingly, the UN Climate Conferences themselves have come under increasing criticism for offering a platform to polluters to ‘greenwash’ their activities. COP27 was marked by an “explosion” of corporate lobbyists. Concerns about the ‘corporate capture’ of the conferences echo those in other UN processes, such as the ongoing negotiations on a treaty on transnational corporations. Also at COP27, Egyptian authorities placed severe restrictions on civil society, threatening to deprive the deliberations of many critical voices from affected communities.

COP28 is facing similar questions about its legitimacy after the UAE selected the CEO of its state-owned oil company as conference chair. This means that the negotiations on whether to phase out the use of fossil fuels entirely will now be led by an oil executive whose company is reportedly using COP28 as an opportunity to promote new oil deals. Meanwhile, conscious of the severe restrictions on civic space in the UAE, climate activists have expressed fear of surveillance and detention during the conference.  

“Now more than ever” has become somewhat of a cliché in the world of advocacy but it remains true in many cases – most critically in regard to climate change. We are quickly running out of time to take climate action and have already passed certain tipping points, locking in the now inevitable adverse climate impacts on people and the planet. Yet every day we do act, we can prevent more future harm.

What is at stake?

Despite its shortcomings, the Paris Agreement still offers one of the most robust international frameworks to compel States to act. In this context, Franciscans International will be closely monitoring the following developments at COP28:

  • The conference will include the first global stocktake (GTS), through which countries and other stakeholders will assess the progress in reducing emissions through the national commitments that they made following the Paris Agreement –  and identify where they are falling behind. Although it is clear that we are woefully off track to keep average global temperatures “well below 2°C”, the GTS can be leveraged to accelerate the ambition of the next round of national action plans, which are due in 2025.
  • State delegates are also expected to reach a decision on whether to phase out fossil fuels – that is, to completely eliminate them –  or whether to merely phase down their use. The continued extraction of gas, oil, and coal by companies does not only harm our planet –  it is also negatively impacting an array of human rights, including the right to health and the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. A decision to phase out fossil fuels is essential to protect both our common home and our human rights.
  • Negotiations on a loss and damage fund should be concluded at COP28. Through this mechanism, wealthy countries – historically responsible for the most emissions – should provide financial support to poorer countries to mitigate the damages of the climate crisis and facilitate the shift away from fossil fuels. An equitable and effective mechanism will be critical to ensure that nobody is left behind.
  • For the first time ever, the UN Climate Conference will feature a faith pavilion, which further reinforces the UN’s strong engagement with religious communities on climate issues. Although Pope Francis was forced to cancel his visit due to health reasons, Anglican Archbishop Julio will join other faith leaders, emphasizing that climate justice is not only a political and human rights issue, but also a moral and spiritual imperative.

COP28 also coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December. Later that week, on 15 December, the prestigious UN Human Rights Prize will be awarded to an international coalition of civil society organizations that includes FI for its role in advocating for the recognition of the right to a healthy environment – a pointed reminder that environmental issues are also human rights issues. Through its recognition of this right, the UN General Assembly has laid the groundwork for a rights-based approach to global environmental action.

As the delegates gather at COP28, they must meet the moment and finally fulfill their obligations under international law. They should know that the world is watching and that anything short of urgent and inclusive action is not an option. In the words of UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres: “We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.”.


Where to find us during COP28:

Talanoa Interfaith Gathering
(30 November – 12:30 CET)

Based on a traditional form of dialogue by the Indigenous People of Fiji to solve problems within the community, we’ll meet to exchange our initiatives, concerns, and hopes in our work for climate justice.

The Right to a Healthy Environment – What Next?
(1 December – 13:45 CET)

During a high level event that will be opened by the President of Slovenia, we will explore how the right to a healthy environment can be mainstreamed, implemented, and codified by the international climate community.

In the 2000s, the discovery of large gas and mineral reserves in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado promised to bring economic growth and human development to the population. However, while it led to massive investments from European companies, local communities have hardly benefited from it. On the contrary, the exploitation of resources highlighted inequalities and participated in the rise of violence. The situation in Cabo Delgado further escalated in October 2017, when an extremist group locally known as Al Shabab* engaged in a brutal insurgency, indiscriminately targeting citizens. Since it started, thousands of people have been killed, and over one million have been displaced.

Amid this complex and multi-faceted crisis, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM), of which Sister Therese is a member, help internally displaced persons in resettlement camps through psychological support and practical training courses, particularly for young women. We discussed her daily work with affected people, some of the root causes of the crisis, and how she views international advocacy.   


Can you explain what your work involves? 

In northern Mozambique, the arrival of internally displaced persons was sudden and massive. Every day, between 300 and 500 people turned up, some with their luggage, others empty-handed. When this happened, we had to make a quick decision. As I already had experience working with Rwandan and Burundian refugees, I didn’t hesitate to get involved and put myself at their service. Thanks to the collaboration of local authorities, we were able to find different sites to welcome people, and we currently have eleven camps in our district. The first thing my sisters and I do is to welcome them on one of our plots and provide them with the emergency aid sent by our congregation, which includes food for the first few days and a mat to sleep on. Our work also has a psychological dimension: every morning, our priority is to be close to them and listen to them. Our presence alone is essential. Finally, we train them to be self-sufficient, so that they don’t become dependent. 

Before arriving in these camps, what was the experience of these displaced persons? 

Many people were displaced by the terrorist attacks, which began unexpectedly. Villagers watched helplessly as armed groups burned down their homes and beheaded their neighbors and relatives. When you see that, you have no choice but to flee. So many of them were displaced by this violence, but it wasn’t the only factor. Indeed, the soil of the Cabo Delgado province is rich in minerals, making it an especially attractive place for the mining industry. Rather than engage in dialogue with Indigenous populations and traditional chiefs, transnational companies have evicted them from their land, often with the false promise of giving them new plots in exchange that would enable them to continue their farming activities.

What’s the situation like in the camps?

Thanks to the help of non-governmental and ecclesiastical organizations, the situation has improved. Some of them are taking care of water by digging wells, the sanitary facilities are in better condition, and generally speaking, collaborating with other entities means that local needs are better taken care of. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), for example, was one of the first on the ground to provide essential aid. However, humanitarian assistance is not always constant: due to a lack of funds, the aid provided by the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) is about to stop, so we are in the process of receiving the last stocks of food. This is problematic, because rain is scarce, and it takes three months to harvest. The most difficult thing about our work is the means. If we don’t have the material means, it’s all over.

What inspired you to start this work and how does it connect with your vocation as a Franciscan sister?

Right from the start of my vocation, I saw myself as a missionary, which means I accept any kind of work, even if it’s difficult and risky. Our Foundress used to say, “My consecration is love”, so I must love everyone without distinction. My priority is to help those who are suffering, but I also play the role of mediator. Because the land is State-owned in Mozambique, certain fields have been redistributed to newly arrived displaced persons, creating major tensions with the locals. The latter began to demand a share of the crops as compensation for the land they had lost. In this type of situation, I don’t take sides and try to maintain cohesion. Finally, I think that my work reflects the necessary balance between prayer and action.  

What was your impression of your first experience at the United Nations?

I enjoyed it because I thought that only certain countries would be represented and have the opportunity to speak – I didn’t expect there would be so much diversity in the debates. Besides, the exchanges I witnessed were very respectful. Now I have a completely different impression of the UN, and I can see how much human rights work is carried out by so many people.

What is your main message to the international community? 

My main request is that human rights and freedom of expression be respected. In the context of mining activities in Mozambique, it is necessary to start a conversation with civil society, and for this, the international community has an essential role to play. It is important to put pressure on heads of state to engage in dialogue with their people and to ensure their participation in decision-making processes that affect them. It is also the responsibility of governments to set limits for companies and to maintain a reciprocity that is inclusive of local populations. Finally, I’m convinced that we could all live very well together on this earth if we respect human rights – rights that are included in God’s Ten Commandments.

*No ties to the Somali group of the same name.

For more information, check out our main article on Franciscans at the Forefront of Human Rights.

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Many of Franciscans International’s friends, partners, and colleagues gathered in Geneva and online on 8 November to usher in a new era for the organization and say goodbye to Markus Heinze OFM, whose final term as Executive Director is coming to an end after more than a decade. The event was also an opportunity to meet and welcome his successor Blair Matheson TSSF, who will officially assume the role on 1 January 2024.

Markus took the opportunity to thank those committed to FI’s work for the support he received over the past years. “All that we achieved was only possible because of all of you. It’s like an orchestra: everyone plays their own instrument, but that’s what creates the wonderful sounds,” he said. “But of course, it’s not about our achievements – it’s about our mission and vision to respect the dignity and the rights of every person. For that I thank you.”

Reflecting on the change, the President of FI’s International Board of Directors, Brother Michael Perry OFM, delivered a short address, exploring the meaning of leadership in a Franciscan context and its linkages with human rights advocacy at the United Nations.

“One of the most striking things about leadership in the ‘Franciscan’ world – if such a world really exists – is the intuitive sense that true authority is derived from the bottom, from being among the least, sharing their experience, and engaging with them, rather than seeking to occupy a place at the top of society.”

Concluding the meeting, those in attendance offered a blessing to Blair as he prepares to take over. “It was clear that my time at FI would end, and some may have gotten nervous about what would come next,” said Markus. “I promised people we’d do our best to find a good Executive Director, but I didn’t know he would be that good.”

During the last week of October, UN Member States gathered in Geneva to continue negotiations on a new treaty that would regulate the activities of transnational corporations under international human rights law. This open-ended governmental working group (IGWG) was established in 2014 by the Human Rights Council, acknowledging that businesses are among the key drivers of human rights violations around the world.

Franciscans International has actively participated in all nine sessions of the IGWG to date, providing both technical expertise and offering a platform to partners so that their firsthand experiences can inform the negotiations. In the past, we have hosted Franciscans and other human rights defenders to provide testimonies on the impacts business activities have on their communities, often with widespread and inter-generational consequences.

Negotiations start in earnest

At the start of the 9th session, several States raised questions and concerns about the process through which the fourth revised draft – the proposed text under negotiation – was developed. These included the incorporation of some of the controversial 2022 proposals made by the chair, as well as the lack of intersessional contributions from the African region.

Following agreement on posting both the fourth revised draft in ‘clean’ and ‘track changes’ formats during the session, negotiations continued and covered the preamble and Articles 1 to 3 during the week. The session saw broad participation by States, as well as many States that had not previously joined the negotiations. 

While this was an encouraging sign, there is still a fundamental disagreement between States on the scope of the treaty and what types of businesses it should cover. With large financial interests at stake, there have been repeated attempts by some States and corporate interests to weaken the text. FI delivered and participated in oral statements, including as members of the ESCR-Net and the Feminists for a Binding Treaty coalitions. Throughout the negotiations, our interventions have focused on the need to include robust language that will establish actionable tools to meet the reality many communities are facing at the grassroots.

Voices from the grassroots

We also co-sponsored two side events. The first event, “A Cross-Regional Discussion to Spotlight Key Issues the Treaty Can Address From a Feminist Perspective”, featured an FI staff member and a Franciscan Sister from Mozambique, who discussed the relevance of the future treaty in situations of conflict based on her experience supporting internally displaced persons. A second event, looking at concrete cases of human rights violations and eco-destruction, examined how these examples addressed specific provisions of the proposed treaty, including its provisions on prevention, access to justice, and liability.  

In moving forward, the report of the Chair-Rapporteur offered a series of recommendations, including to present a procedural decision to the Human Rights Council requesting additional human and financial resources to support the process, to hold intersessional consultations in regard to methodology; and to convene “intersessional, cross-regional thematic consultations” on the draft treaty.  

FI will continue to follow the process closely, and actively contribute, when possible, to intersessional meetings and other opportunities for consultation.  

Franciscans International is extremely concerned by the violence that has engulfed the Holy Land in recent weeks, and we join Pope Francis and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in their calls for an immediate ceasefire. We also note that the UN General Assembly has overwhelmingly supported a resolution demanding a humanitarian truce and the “release of all civilians who are being illegally held captive,” as well as the urgent statements issued by a number of UN agencies, officials, and experts on the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza.

We join Brother Massimo Fusarelli, Minister General of the Friars Minor, and the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, in their call for prayers for peace, and to “sow it with concrete gestures.”

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“Let there be a cease-fire. War is always a defeat – always, always.”

Pope Francis

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FI reiterates that international humanitarian and human rights law must be upheld and that the indiscriminate targeting of civilians can never be tolerated. Allegations of mass atrocity crimes should be independently investigated, and anyone violating these core principles must be held accountable by a court of law without exception. Accordingly, we welcome the recent visit of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to the Rafah crossing and urge him to take appropriate action under his mandate. More generally, all States must fulfill their obligations under international law, and take concrete steps to ensure the protection of civilian populations.

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“Hell is visible in the pictures of the dead and injured, of the destruction of homes, churches and mosques, hospitals, schools. We hear it with the emergency warning sirens on the background. We sense it in the heavy air that smells of death and suffering. The innocent victims of this war do not deserve the hell on earth they are living.”

Br. Ibrahim Faltas OFM, Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land, on the situation in Gaza

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As the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, H.E. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, wrote on 24 October: it is our moral duty to unequivocally condemn this violence. As he points out, it is “only by ending decades of occupation and its tragic consequences […] that a serious peace process can begin.” Witnessing the events of the past weeks, we echo Cardinal Pizzaballa that “the tragedy of these days must lead us all, religious, political, civil society, international community, to a more serious commitment in this regard than what has been done so far.”

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More than twenty years after the end of the internal armed conflict, Guatemala is still suffering from these decades of extreme violence and discrimination against Indigenous communities. Rampant impunity and widespread high-level corruption persist. The judicial power plays a big role in muzzling dissent by blocking investigations of corruption and human rights violations, and arbitrarily prosecuting independent journalists and judges. The country has also become one of the most dangerous places for human rights defenders, who are routinely surveilled, criminalized, harassed, and in some cases, simply killed. In August 2023, anticorruption candidate Bernardo Arevalo unexpectedly won the presidential elections, giving new hope to the population. But since then, the Attorney General’s Office has sought to delegitimize the results, which in turn sparked protests across Guatemala.  

In this context, we met with Brenda Peralta, who works as the coordinator of the Justice, Peace and Integrity Commission (JPIC) of the Franciscan Family of Guatemala, a member of the advocacy committee of the Franciscan Network for Migrants (FNM), as well as coordinator of the Causas Raíz Initiative in Guatemala. We discussed the situation in her country as well as how she sees her work towards more justice.


What are the main human rights issues in Guatemala?

For the past years, the “pact of the corrupt” – a group of powerful elites linked to organized crime – has undermined the rule of law, with systematic attacks against independent justice officials and the criminalization of activists, Indigenous leaders, and journalists. After exposing corruption at the highest levels of the government, the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was pushed out of the country. Indigenous communities are also often being evicted from their territories, which causes internal displacement and other human rights abuses. The issue with these lands is that they were stolen during the internal armed conflict when the population went into exile, and powerful families and military fraudulently transferred the titles to their name. After the peace agreements in 1996, people returned to their territories, but now, these are being reclaimed by the supposed owners with the help of the government and paramilitary groups that want to use them for palm oil production, extractive mining, and hydroelectric projects.

What inspired you to work on these issues and how does it connect with your vocation as a Franciscan?

I met the Franciscans in my adolescence. They helped me become more aware of what was happening in my country at the time, which was during the last years of the internal armed conflict. However, it was not until many years later that I came to know the JPIC. Their work for the care of our common home and towards the construction of a better world for all became a way of life for me. We seek to create awareness in both religious and secular Franciscan communities about social and political problems and how they affect us. We are also trying to show the importance of solidarity and how political and citizen participation contributes to creating solutions.

What are the main challenges of your work?

I think one of the main challenges is the coordination of our common goal, which is to change unjust structures. A lot has been done already at the regional level, with Central America and Mexico, but we still have a long way to go. We work on many fronts simultaneously to be able to see changes. This can be challenging, but I do it with pleasure because it is out of conviction. Another challenge is to encourage advocacy from the Franciscan family. Indeed, some might be wary of getting involved on certain issues, because there is always a safety risk when working as a human rights advocate.

What achievement are you most proud of?

The positive response and trust that many Franciscans have been given during these years is truly heartwarming. We have established alliances with leaders, other religious organizations, and civil society. Good teamwork was essential to improve the way we do things, and to be involved at different levels, including internationally. For instance, working with the United Nations helps to make visible situations of human rights violations that would be harder to denounce locally due to security issues. It also generates trust in the local people and networks we already work with and facilitates connection spaces to create new networks.

How do you see the difference between charity and human rights work do you think they complement each other?

One of the JPIC’s principles is charity, which we understand at three levels. First, the welfare, such as feeding the hungry, then the promotional, which is raising awareness, and finally, structural. While some people mainly dedicate themselves to the first part – which is great – I think it is essential to go further than that and work on the root causes of injustice. In that sense, charity and human rights work complement each other very well.

For more information, check out our main article on Franciscans at the Forefront of Human Rights.

In September, the Franciscan Network for Migrants (FNM) gathered in San Salvador for its annual meeting. Representing the concerns of the network at the United Nations, Franciscans International participated in this meeting, which brought together facilitators and representatives of Franciscan migrant shelters across the Americas.

The week centered around capacity-building, experience-sharing, and collaboration. Together, participants could comparatively analyze the situation of migrants in their respective countries and the lack of protection for people on the move. Although the political contexts may vary, the issues migrants face – such as violence, insecurity, organized crime, and corruption – are often the same. While taking stock of their common efforts to protect migrants across South, Central, and North America, Franciscan partners also reflected on how their work can be further strengthened.

Resisting the invisibility of migrants

Due to their disadvantaged status, migrants are vulnerable to a multitude of human rights violations, including human trafficking, murders, and enforced disappearances. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2022 was the deadliest year for migrants in the Americas since the start of its Missing Migrant Project in 2014, with more than 1.400 who went missing or died. When this happens, many family members remain in the dark about the fate of their loved ones, as proper investigations are still severely lacking.

During the week, Franciscans met with members of the Committee of Relatives of Deceased and Disappeared Migrants from El Salvador (COFAMIDE), an initiative born in 2006 from relatives of migrants who disappeared. Omar Joaquin, the organization’s Secretary-General, himself received a “last communication” from his son before he disappeared. Since then, he has helped hundreds of families looking for answers about their relatives and advocates for stronger protection and search mechanisms.

Documenting the situation: a real challenge

Another focus of the 2023 annual meeting was the importance of documenting these human rights violations – a workshop under FI’s responsibility. Documenting and connecting individual experiences can help distinguish trends and dynamics, identify the actors involved, and thus make more robust cases for national and international advocacy. It also helps build and sustain a collective memory of what is happening to people on the move.

With the help of Margarita Nunez from the Migration Affairs Program (PRAMI), they identified different components of human rights documentation and how each is essential for humanitarian, judicial, or political action. Indeed, as there is often a gap between laws, discourses, and practices, having precise and systematic information is vital when advocating for change.

Documentation also includes security incidents against people working to support and protect migrants. In a context of increased criminalization and threats against human rights defenders (HRDs), Joaquin Raymundo of Protection International reminded participants that the UN General Assembly has compelled States to protect HRDs. This led to an extensive discussion of participants’ first-hand experiences of security incidents and how to improve capacities and protection strategies to mitigate these risks.

Finally, the week together has proven the importance of alliances. FNM Executive Secretary Vianey Martinez said: “In a fraternal spirit, we created a safe and synodal space to elaborate with FI through a three-year work plan and to discuss our next steps.” In the end, this collaboration allows Franciscans to use their complementary skills, share good practices, and support each other in their common objective to protect and safeguard the human dignity of people on the move.