Less than a year after its launch, the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative has gathered the required number of signatures.
This significant step paves the way for the initiative to be taken up by the Swiss government and shows that a large number of Swiss citizens want multinational corporations to respect human rights and the environment abroad.
In April 2015, 77 civil society organisations launched a popular initiative demanding greater responsibility for multinational corporations. The initiative came shortly after the Swiss Parliament rejected a motion to that effect. The constitutional amendment proposed by the initiative is inspired by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2011. It compels Swiss-based multinational companies to undertake human rights and environmental due diligence in all their business activities abroad. If a corporation does not fulfil its mandatory due diligence, it may be held to account for abuses committed abroad by entities under its control.
VOLUNTARY MEASURES REMAIN INSUFFICIENT
Forced labour in shrimp fisheries, abusive child labour in cocoa production, human rights violations in gold mines – these examples are only the latest of a long list of troublesome activities carried out by Swiss companies abroad. Despite these practices, the Swiss Parliament and the Federal Council (national government) have to date refused regulation and continue to rely solely on companies’ voluntary measures. The limits of this scheme were recently highlighted in a study by Bread for All and the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund. Out of the 200 largest Swiss corporations, only 11% have a human rights policy which refers to the UN Guiding Principles and over 60% have no human rights policy at all. Corporate social responsibility has failed to effectively identify and eradicate business-related abuses. Appropriate legal safeguards are a matter of urgency. Anything less will be at the expense of progressive companies suffering from unfair competition.
INTERNATIONAL SHIFT TOWARDS BINDING MEASURES
Binding rules also match the current international trend. The French Parliament is presently debating a bill requiring mandatory due diligence for multinational corporations. In early March, the Council of Europe adopted its Recommendation on Human Rights and Business. The Recommendation urges member States to make domestic courts competent for business-related human rights abuses committed by subsidiaries wherever these are located.
The Swiss Responsible Business Initiative is a unique project as it is backed by a broad coalition of 77 non-governmental organizations. It will be presented to the government in October. The Federal Council and subsequently the Parliament will then discuss the initiative before it is put to the Swiss people in a referendum.