Global Business? Global Responsibility!
Swiss companies that threaten human rights and the environment through their economic activities abroad must take responsibility. This is the message with which a broad coalition launches the Responsible Business Initiative today in Bern. The initiative seeks to ensure that Swiss companies are compelled to integrate the protection of human rights and the environment in their business practices.
Catastrophic working conditions in textile factories in Asia or Eastern Europe, abusive child labour in cocoa production in West Africa, toxic emissions in Zambia: Swiss companies are also involved in such injustices through their global activities. Switzerland ranks 20th of the world economic powers. Yet according to a study by Maastricht University, which rated 1,800 cases of human rights abuses carried out by companies, Switzerland then occupies the inglorious 9th place. Although this discrepancy has led to a great deal of discussion in the last years, concrete measures nevertheless remain absent. The Swiss Federal Council and Parliament continue to focus exclusively on voluntary measures for corporations. In mid-March 2015 Parliament narrowly rejected a motion from the Commission for greater corporate responsibility. So although the problem is recognized, greater pressure from civil society is required to introduce mandatory requirements.
This is why a popular initiative is being launched today by a broad coalition of different organizations. The Responsible Business Initiative aims to require that all Swiss companies carry out human rights and environmental due diligence. This instrument is based on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights adopted in 2011. 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. Then they must take effective measures to combat the potentially negative impacts identified. And as a third step, companies are required to report transparently on the violated rights that they have identified, as well as the related measures taken.
In order to ensure that all companies carry out their due diligence obligations, Swiss corporations should also be made liable for human rights abuses and environmental violations caused by companies controlled by them. However where a company can credibly demonstrate that it carried out adequate due diligence and that it took all necessary measures, that company can be exempted from liability. The initiative therefore has a preventative effect and gives companies a real incentive to do the right thing.
Cornelio Sommaruga, former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and current member of the Initiative Committee sees the initiative as an important step for the country as an economic location: “Switzerland has a great responsibility both as the country of headquarters for humanitarian organizations as well as the home of many multinational companies. In the interests of the reputation of our country, we have to make our companies responsible too.” Other home states of globally active corporations are also aiming for regulation of their companies. At the end of March, the National Assembly in France endorsed a draft bill that goes in the same direction as the Responsible Business Initiative. Antoinette Hunziker-Ebneter, the ex-president of the Swiss stock exchange and current CEO of Forma Futura Invest AG underlines: “With this initiative we can create a new basis upon which voluntary initiatives by the private sector and civil society to protect human rights and the environment can be interwoven with state regulatory action. Companies are provided with a binding tool to minimize their risks. This strengthens their value as well as their competitiveness.”
The 66 launching organizations are now collecting signatures for the Responsible Business Initiative.
Further information can be found in this factsheet (in English) and at www.initiative-multinationales.ch (in French, German and Italian only).
Notes to the Editor:
In the Swiss political system, a popular initiative leads to a binding referendum if the initiators manage to collect 100,000 signatures across 18 months. Assuming the requisite number of signatures is collected in time, a vote would not be expected for another 3 years.
Berne, 13 March 2015
Swiss parliament motion for mandatory human rights due diligence narrowly turned down
Conservative backlash blocks increased corporate accountability
Following a turbulent debate, the Swiss lower chamber of parliament initially accepted a motion yesterday for increased corporate accountability only to repeat the vote and ultimately dismiss the motion. This decision shows how a narrow majority in the lower chamber of the Swiss parliament continues to obstruct a sustainable Swiss human rights and foreign economic policy. The Swiss Corporate Justice Campaign is launching a popular initiative for responsible business this April so that Swiss citizens can weigh in on this important issue.
The Foreign Affairs Committee requested the introduction of mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence for Swiss corporations. This parliamentary proposal, focusing on prevention, has gained broad support from business and political circles. Professor John Ruggie, the former UN Special Representative and author of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, welcomed this motion as well. Yesterday's evening vote had a promising start; after an in-depth debate about this important issue, the motion was accepted by one vote, with the President of the lower chamber breaking a tie (91 voting in favour, 90 against). For roughly one and a half hours Switzerland was a political leader in international corporate accountability.
Despite a broad alliance, an about-face followed later that evening. Due to pressure from the conservative buness lobbies (SwissHoldings, Economiesuisse), the right political parties requested a re-vote. Shortly before the end of the session at 6:47 PM, the second vote ended with 95 voting against the motion and 86 in favour.
A very significant minority of elected Swiss representatives wants Switzerland to strengthen the accountability of its multinational enterprises, while conservative forces, ignoring the international trend towards more corporate accountability, continue to stand in the way. The blockage of this pivotal aspect of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights clearly shows that without further pressure, Switzerland will not change. That's why over 60 non-governmental organizations are jointly launching the Popular Initiative for Responsible Business in April. This political tool is urgently needed and more promising then ever.
Rahel Ruch, Coordinator, Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice, Tel. +41 76 517 02 08, email@example.com
Michel Egger, Coordinator, Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice, Tel. +41 79 599 97 30, firstname.lastname@example.org
* Notes to the editor:
Popular Initiatives in Switzerland: This quite unique Swiss instrument allows for a binding popular vote on a proposal of a constitutional amendment if 100'000 signatures can be collected in an 18-month period.
The Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice (SCCJ) is a coalition of 60 development and human rights organizations, environmental and women's organizations, trade unions, church groups and critical shareholder associations. The Coalition advocates for clear rules for international companies, so that they must respect human rights and environmental standards worldwide. www.corporatejustice.ch
Bern, 19 January 2015
Press Release from the Swiss Coalition of Corporate Justice (SCCJ)
Popular Initiative for Responsible Business
The Swiss Coalition of Corporate Justice (SCCJ) is planning to launch a popular initiative, the aim of which will be to require Swiss companies to respect human rights and environmental standards abroad as well as at home. The widely supported association comprises some 50 charities, women’s rights, human rights, environmental and church organizations, as well as trade unions and shareholders’ associations.
In 2011, the SCCJ started a campaign with a petition demanding that Swiss companies respect human rights and environmental standards – also abroad. Just seven months later, the petition was submitted with 135,000 signatures. And it got the ball rolling: Parliament requested the government to put together a national action plan on business and human rights (the “Ruggie Strategy”), a comparative law report on due diligence with respect to human rights and the environment, and a yet-to-be-delivered report on access to justice for the victims of human rights violations caused by companies. Although the government has recognized the problems in the arena of human rights and business and the related reputational risks posed by such to Switzerland, all the solutions proposed so far have focused on voluntary measures. Neither government nor Parliament has so far been prepared to take the necessary next step and to formulate legally binding requirements on companies based in Switzerland. As a result, the respect for human rights and the environment abroad continues to be left up to the goodwill of Swiss companies.
For this reason a broad coalition of over 50 civil society organizations decided together to launch a popular initiative “for responsible business – for the protection of people and the environment (the responsible business initiative)”. At the heart of the initiative is mandatory due diligence regarding human rights and the environment. Due diligence in this context includes a risk assessment, measures to prevent and eliminate possible human rights violations and environmental damage, as well as comprehensive reporting on the policies in place and the action taken. The duty to carry out due diligence extends through all business operations and is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. The initiative covers all Swiss companies. The scale and complexity of the due diligence depends on the specific risks of the corporation – small and medium-sized enterprises will remain largely unaffected by the initiative.
The text of the initiative is currently under review at the Federal Chancellery and the committee of the initiative is just being established. The association «Initiative for responsible business» will launch the initiative in the second half of April 2015. The collection of signatures will start at the beginning of May.
Rahel Ruch, coordinator, +41 (0)76 517 02 08, email@example.com
Michel Egger, coordinator, +41 (0)79 599 97 30, firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes to the editor:
In the event that the initiators of a popular initiative manage to collect 100,000 signatures across 18 months, a binding referendum on the subject will then follow.
The Swiss Council of States approves the postulate on compensation for victims
Access to Justice: the First Step
The Council of States today approved postulate 14.3663. This requires a report on access to remedy for victims of human rights violations by companies. The way is now open for the Federal Council to close a significant gap for victims of human rights violations. The Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice (SCCJ) calls for a rapid and detailed clarification of the current situation and effective measures for Switzerland.
In 2012 the SCCJ petition was filed. One hundred and thirty-five thousand signatories demanded on the one hand that Swiss companies respect human rights and environmental standards around the world, and on the other, that victims be able to claim compensation here in Switzerland. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the Council of States has included this second part of the petition in the postulate adopted today by the Council of States. The report will detail the judicial and non-judicial measures implemented in other countries for people whose human rights have been violated by companies in host States that enable effective access to remedy in the companies’ home state. The Federal Council is to consider what measures would be suitable for Switzerland.
With the adoption of this postulate, the Federal Council has been effectively given the instruction to analyze the third pillar of the UN guiding principles on business and human rights ("access to remedy") in depth. This is necessary because, as the Federal Council writes in its response to the postulate, gaps exist in this area so far. Such a report, "brings updated findings in two areas that have hitherto only been touched on peripherally or considered from different angles." This is why the Federal Council wants to integrate the report in the National Action Plan (NAP) for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles (see postulate 12.3505).
The SCCJ calls on the Federal Council to take the work on this report quickly in hand so that the National Action Plan (NAP) currently expected in December 2014 is not further delayed. In addition, the coalition expects a clarification of the current gaps in Swiss law and effective measures to improve the situation of those affected.