Religious leaders speak out in favor of strong UN treaty on transnational corporations

Despite unprecedented levels of global prosperity, too many are still left by the wayside, adding to an ever-growing class of excluded people. Large scale industrial projects disproportionately affect those at the bottom of global production chains, with the consequences often invisible to those at the top. Addressing the impact business activities on human rights is one of the most challenging and topical issues for organizations like Franciscans International (FI).

The demand for new international binding rules to hold transnational corporations that commit human rights violations to account as they operate in an increasingly globalized and complex economic system dates back to at least the 1990s. However, these efforts have so far only resulted in non-binding agreements and guidelines that have failed to adequately protect the rights of victims.

A significant step was taken in 2014, when Human Rights Council resolution 26/9 established an open ended Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) to elaborate a treaty to prevent and remedy the negative impact on human rights caused by business activities. In October 2018, the IGWG convened in Geneva for its 4th session,  where delegates discussed a zero draft – the first proposed text of a future treaty.

The protection of marginalized and economically vulnerable communities is deeply ingrained in the Franciscan tradition and Franciscans International (FI) has actively engaged the IGWG since its establishment by providing technical expertise and facilitating access to guests from affected communities to share their testimony and work toward a treaty that reflects the needs of victims, rather than that of commercial interests.

This year, FI hosted three high level religious leaders to show faith-based support for the future treaty for more business accountability. Mrg. André de Witte (Brazil), Mgr. Alvaro Ramazzini (Guatemala), and Rev. Ralf Häussler (Germany) met with diplomats and other stakeholders to share testimonies on how their parishioners have been negatively affected by the impact of large-scale industrial projects.

During a side event, the two Bishops and the Reverend elaborated on the challenges of seeking redress through existing non-binding mechanisms, and their inadequacies in preventing human rights abuses. “Experience has shown that guiding principles need to be complimented by strict laws,” said Mgr. Ramazzini, who has been an outspoken defender of indigenous communities in Guatemala and has repeatedly received death threats because of his advocacy.

During the formal deliberations focused on the zero-draft, FI’s International Advocacy Director was among those invited to share their insights on the scope and definitions of the treaty. Ms. Epal Ratjen elaborated on FI’s expectation that the future treaty will address the specific challenges posed by transnational businesses, operating across national borders, without undermining responsibilities that all businesses have to respect human rights.

Despite the urgent need to prevent, and provide redress for, human rights abuses committed by transnational corporations, progress toward adopting a legally binding instrument remains slow with many economically powerful States only nominally engaging in the deliberations or boycotting the process altogether. Nevertheless, FI will continue to engage all stakeholders ahead of the IGWG’s 5th session in October 2019.

“Ultimately, this treaty is not against the economy or against transnational corporations,” said Mgr. de Witte, after highlighting issues of land grabbing by mining companies in his diocese, during the side event. “It is in the service of the lives of victims. It in the service of all of us.”

Franciscans International in the Media