The Responsible Business Initiative wanted multinationals to respect human rights and the environment in their activities abroad.
The initiative’s objectives
Under the Responsible Business Initiative, companies would have been legally obliged to incorporate respect for human rights and the environment in all their business activities. This mandatory due diligence would also have been applied to Swiss based companies’ activities abroad.
The mandatory due diligence instrument is based on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. According to these principles, companies must first review all their business relationships and activities with a view to identifying potential risks to people and the environment. They must then take effective measures to address the potentially negative impacts identified and report in a transparent manner on the risks identified and the measures taken.
Implementation through the liability provision
If the initiative had succeeded, how would companies’ application of mandatory due diligence have been guaranteed?
In order to ensure that all companies carry out their due diligence obligations, Swiss based firms would have been liable for human rights abuses and environmental violations caused abroad by companies under their control. This provision would have enabled victims of human rights violations and environmental damage to seek redress in Switzerland.
Moreover, when a company could credibly demonstrate to the Court that it had carried out adequate due diligence and that it had taken all necessary measures to prevent the violations, it would have been exempted from liability. The initiative therefore would have had a preventive effect as it would have provided companies with an actual incentive to comply with their obligations.
What is a popular initiative in Switzerland?
A popular initiative allows Swiss citizens to request an amendment to the Federal Constitution (of one article or its entirety). Initiatives to introduce or amend specific federal laws are not permitted. The Swiss Responsible Business Initiative demanded the introduction of the article 101a « Responsibility of business » in the Constitution.
Supporters of an initiative have 18 months to collect 100’000 signatures from the Swiss electorate. The initiative is then submitted to the Federal Council (Executive) and the Parliament who can either accept or reject the amendment or draft a counter-proposal. As long as the initiative is not retracted, it will be put to the popular vote. The majority of the electorate and of the cantons (a ‘double majority’) is necessary for the initiative to pass.
Since the creation of the Federal State in 1848, 313 initiatives were launched and submitted, 94 of which were retracted and 200 of which were voted upon. 22 initiatives were approved at the ballot box but a considerable number of initiatives generated an impact through a counter-project or specific policies.
The Swiss Responsible Business Initiative was launched after the discussion in Parliament of the petition « Law without borders » and since no majority in favour of the proposed amendment was found. Popular initiatives can be used by civil society as a tool to build pressure on the political sphere, put an issue on the agenda and to integrate ideas beyond political cleavages.
The Responsible Business Initiative collected 120’000 signatures in less than a year, which were then validated by the State administration in October 2016. In 2017, the Federal Council recommended to the Parliament to reject the initiative. After the various stages of the parliamentary process (https://corporatejustice.ch/stages-in-parliament/) the Responsible Business Initiative was rejected at the ballot box on 29 November 2020 despite gaining 50.7% of the popular vote because the majority of the cantons voted against it. A majority of both the popular and cantonal vote is needed for an initiative to pass.