A Congolese cardinal is urging Swiss people to vote ‘yes’ on a Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, insisting that “companies that pollute or exploit must be held accountable”.

– Swiss to go to polls this weekend to vote on people’s push for responsible business

Archbishop of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu made the appeal in a guest article on Swiss Bishops’ news service kath.ch November 20.

In his article, the Capuchin friar argued that “companies that pollute the environment or exploit people must be held accountable for the actions of their subsidiaries – even if justice does not work in the country concerned”.

That’s why the cardinal is backing the ‘Corporate Responsibility’ or ‘Responsible Business’ Initiative that will come up for a vote in Switzerland November 29.

That Initiative – which dates back to 2015, and is the brainchild of a coalition of Swiss NGOs – seeks to amend the country’s Constitution to make multinationals operating abroad legally responsible for human rights and environmental abuses, imposing on them at the same time a series of due diligence and duty of care obligations.

Économiesuisse, the Swiss business federation representing more than 120 associations and trade chambers, is warning against the people’s Initiative, arguing that it will suppose “excessive costs” in vigilance for businesses operating overseas and could lead to “blackmail” in court over corporate abuse claims.

But the Swiss Catholic Church along with various Catholic and other aid agencies are in favour of the Initiative – something that Cardinal Ambongo welcomed as a “gesture of solidarity” on their part towards the people of the DRC.

– Wealth of natural resources “incommensurate with the poverty of the Congolese population”

In his reflection on the Initiative, Cardinal Ambongo recalled that while the DRC “is one of the richest African countries in terms of natural resources” – with vast reserves of “copper, cobalt, zinc, coltan, cassiterite, gold, bauxite, diamonds, oil, gas…” – “the wealth of these raw materials is incommensurate with the poverty of the Congolese population”.

“Instead of contributing to the development of our country and benefiting our people, minerals, oil and forests have become the cause of our conflicts and misfortunes”, the cardinal deplored, insisting that multinationals, including those based in Switzerland, “are among the causes of our problems”.

Big businesses “can be an important factor for development if they respect human rights and environmental standards. But they can also contribute to the misery of the population”, Ambongo alerted.

The cardinal decried that although he and other Congolese bishops have “repeatedly denounced” the activities of several companies in the DRC, the situation in the country “is hardly improving”.

“The people who live near the mines and quarries are suffering: their environment is polluted, they no longer have access to water, their houses are destroyed, they are resettled without compensation, they are victims of violence”, Ambongo deplored.

“Our country has poor governance. Laws are poorly enforced. Impunity is omnipresent. How can victims of human rights violations gain access to justice?”, the cardinal clamoured.

– On corporate social responsibility, “voluntary initiatives are not enough”

Ambongo recommended the Swiss Corporate Responsibility Initiative precisely as a way for those affected by the abuses of multinationals to obtain justice.

“Experience shows that multinational companies only respond to complaints from the population if they fear [consequences] in their home country. Otherwise nothing happens. Voluntary initiatives are not enough”, the cardinal warned.

Arguing that “Switzerland has an important international responsibility to protect human rights”, the Kinshasa archbishop recalled that he has “long advocated binding standards for multinational companies and improved access to justice for victims”, and that Pope Francis himself “encourages each and every one of us to be aware of our serious ‘ecological debt'”.

That reference to “ecological debt” was an allusion to the Pope Video for September 2020, in which as Ambongo recalled the pontiff also described as “outrageous” the fact that “multinationals do abroad what they would never be allowed to do in their own countries” and urged everyone “to take care of Creation responsibly… today, not tomorrow”.

Welcoming the Swiss Corporate Responsibility Initiative the Corporate Responsibility Initiative as an opportunity for victims of multinationals to “finally… assert their rights if this is not possible in their own country”, Ambongo closed his reflection with another quote from Pope Francis, this time from his October encyclical Fratelli tutti (154):

“The development of a global community of fraternity based on the practice of social friendship on the part of peoples and nations calls for a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good. Sadly, politics today often takes forms that hinder progress towards a different world”.

More on Novena on the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative:

Swiss Churches back citizens’ push to punish businesses that harm people, environment

More news from Switzerland

More Church calls for increased corporate social responsibility

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.