Ecumenical groups join in UN forum on business and human rights in Geneva

ACT General Secretary Rudelmar Bueno de Faria speaking at the Stop Human Rights Abuse! Meaningful dialogue with communities” side event at the 6th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. Photo: WCC

The huge impacts of businesses on the communities in which they operate often bring benefits, but companies can disregard and even harm people’s rights in pursuit of economic gain.

The World Council of Churches (WCC), ACT Alliance and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) hosted a side event at the 6th United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva on November 28, in this context.

The event, called “Stop Human Rights Abuse! – Meaningful Dialogue with Communities” brought together leaders from faith-based organizations, the United Nations and civil society to discuss the impact of businesses on communities and families, particularly in the developing world.

Dr Isabel Phiri, deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), recounted a recent visit to Zambia.

There she witnessed first-hand how a company extracting iron ore had displaced entire villages from their homes and sources of sustenance as well as destroyed sacred places of worship.

“Our role as churches or faith-based organisations is to lift up the voices of those who are suffering from such violations of human rights,” Phiri said.

Dr Ojot Ojulu, LWF’s Interim Assistant General Secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights, noted that the Lutheran communion “is committed to addressing corporate land-grabbing and upholding communities’ land rights.”

In the face of exploitative mining activities and land-grabbing, “faith-based actors have to engage with the business or private sector,” said Rudelmar Bueno de Faria, general secretary of ACT Alliance, not least with a view to protecting people’s rights and ensuring communities’ access to remedies.

Meaningful dialogue between various stakeholders can be an effective way to begin to remedy or mitigate business abuses and the side-event shared practical examples from Africa.

The Bench Marks Foundation, a church-initiated corporate watchdog in South Africa, has developed an Independent Problem Solving Service (IPSS).

While dialogue is at the centre of the IPSS, “genuine dialogue is not possible without addressing unequal power relations between impoverished communities and mining corporations,” said Bench Marks Foundation director John Chapel.

“The IPSS helps to empower communities affected by extractive activities through organising, building capacity, providing relevant information and developing coalitions,” he said.

In a Mozambique land-grab case, the LWF is mediating between a biofuel company, the government and communities.

Yet, bringing companies to the table is not easy.

“A key challenge has to do with changing the beliefs of the company – they have to learn that human rights must be respected,” said Nordine Ferrao from the LWF Mozambique office.

“Another challenge is to bring any violations to the attention of the government, who may not know what is happening,” Ferrao pointed out.

The side-event also examined human rights defenders pressing for businesses to be held accountable.

An increasing number of them are being criminalized, threatened and even killed.

Åsa Beckius from Diakonia, a member of the ACT Alliance, cited a recent report by Michael Forst, UN special rapporteur on human rights’ defenders which said, “businesses have to do much more including by demanding accountability in their supply chains and protecting spaces for civil society.”