Update: 30.03.2011

Commodity trade fosters human rights violations instead of reducing poverty

Copper, cobalt and numerous other precious raw materials can be found on some of the world’s poorest countries’ territories. Since most of our modern-day electric appliances don’t function without these raw materials, multinational corporations dealing with them make gigantic profits. Based on the example of Congo, a campaign by Fastenopfer (Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund) and Bread for all shows the terrifying consequences on nature and on human rights of the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources. In an online petition by the two aid organisations, Swiss authorities have been called upon to stop these developments.

Postulations of the aid organisations

The two Christian aid organisations voice their concern that many human rights violations are brought about by transnational raw material corporations which frequently act in countries with weak governments or continuing conflicts. They call for the Federal Council to take action and to follow a coherent, clear and transparent foreign, economic and human rights policy in the face of transnational corporations.

On the one hand, politics in Switzerland is asked to assure complete fiscal and financial transparency of corporations dealing with raw materials, asking them to explicitly state the exact amount of monies they pay governments of the countries they work in. On the other hand, the aid organisations call for complete legal accountability, asking the Federal Council to search for legal possibilities to settle the entrepreneurial duty of care.

Glencore wantonly exploits weak government structures

No other country boasts as many transnational corporations compared to the number of inhabitants than Switzerland. To the aid organisations, this comes as no surprise. Amongst other factors, it is because Swiss legislation allows the corporations to make profits in third countries and transfer them to Switzerland without having to pay taxes in the countries of origin. It is self-evident why great raw materials enterprises like Glencore, Xstrata and Metalor have chosen to have their seat in Switzerland.

A study conducted by Fastenopfer and Bread for all in cooperation with the South-African Benchmark Foundation provides evidence on the economic activities of Glencore, one of Switzerland’s largest business enterprises. The authors of the study provide evidence that Glencore’s Congolese subsidiary is responsible for numerous violations of human rights. These include the disregard of international labour law, child labour, corruption and widespread pollution of the environment.

It seems that Glencore is uniquely interested in making quick money since, compared to several other companies in the same sector, the undertaking does not even have, or work according to, serious guidelines or principles on social responsibility.

Commentary by humanrights.ch

On an UN level, a better check of economic actors regarding human rights violations has long been called for. The petition by Fastenopfer and Bread for all now helps build up pressure on Swiss authorities to act. But at present, the political will to define legal standards for transnational companies headquartered in Switzerland still seems to be lacking.

Lucrezia Meier-Schatz, president von Fastenopfer and National Councillor for the Christian Democratic People's Party of Switzerland (CVP), has launched an idea with the potential to change the mind of many politicians of the political centre. A way must be found to keep in the developing countries the 160bn USD that transnational companies carry away as profits to other countries. Could these monies be levied as taxes in the developing countries, a large part of the money would stay in the local economies – an enormous sum compared to the total of 120bn USD the industrialised countries of the OECD together invest in foreign aid.


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