The Responsible Business Initiative wants multinationals to respect human rights and the environment in their activities abroad.
How the initiative works
Under the Responsible Business Initiative, companies will be legally obliged to incorporate respect for human rights and the environment in all their business activities. This mandatory due diligence will also be 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 succeeds, how will companies’ application of mandatory due diligence be guaranteed?
In order to ensure that all companies carry out their due diligence obligations, Swiss based firms will be liable for human rights abuses and environmental violations caused abroad by companies under their control. This provision will enable victims of human rights violations and environmental damage to seek redress in Switzerland.
Moreover, when a company can credibly demonstrate to the Court that it carried out adequate due diligence and that it took all necessary measures to prevent the violations, it will be exempted from liability. The initiative therefore has a preventive effect as it provides 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 demands 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 amount of initiatives generated an impact through a counter project or specific policies.
The Swiss 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, set an issue on the agenda and to integrate ideas beyond political cleavages.
The Swiss Responsible Business Initiative collected 120’000 signatures in less than a year, which have been then validated by the State administration in October 2016. In 2017, the Federal Council recommended to the Parliament to reject the initiative. The initiative has then been discussed by Commissions in the Parliament during the fall and winter 2017. In June 2018, the National Council (one of the chambers in the Parliament) accepted a counter-proposal to the initiative. This counter-proposal now needs to be discussed by the other chamber in the fall 2018. (more information under Press releases).