The Swiss President, Johann Schneider-Ammann, took part at this year’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva as a keynote speaker. Schneider-Amman is the Swiss minister of Economic Affairs and serves this year as the President of the Swiss Confederation, a duty which rotates on a yearly basis between the seven members of the Federal Council. Scheider-Ammann’s speech touched upon recent events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump before taking a clear stance in favor of free trade. Schneider-Ammann went as far as to state that free trade agreements must serve as a prerequisite for the realization of human rights. These agreements represent, in his view, the only recipe to lift millions out of poverty. Not only do these startling observations ignore the widely shared analysis that the losers of globalization in Western countries voted to exit the EU and for Trump, they blatantly overlook the millions of people who actually work in the world market factories with no protection for their fundamental human and labor rights.
The Federal Councilor Schneider-Ammann’s speech diametrically differs from the analysis made the day before by Prof. John Ruggie (author of the UNGPs on Business and Human Rights) in his opening speech. Ruggie emphasized that in the wake of events such as Brexit and the US elections and in the face of the overall uncertainty generated by globalization, corporations should focus more than ever on respecting human rights as a mean to reduce poverty and regain trust. He underlined how companies’ promises to orient their activities on ethical principles remain all too often unkept. Since their adoption in 2011, the UNGPs, which were specifically developed to address this issue, have instigated a number of national initiatives for binding regulation of corporations such as in France and Switzerland.
The highlight of Schneider-Amman’s speech was the long overdue Swiss National Action Plan (NAP) to implement the UNGPs on business and human rights, awaited since 2014. Clashing with the UNGPs’ notion of shifting perspective from the risks for companies to those for human rights, Schneider-Ammann’s presentation of the NAP sounded more like a plan to enhance Swiss companies’ competitiveness. In Schneider-Amman’s own words, out of the fifty proposed measures within the NAP, none gives way to new binding norms. The ministry of Economic Affairs’ is known to have pressed for a NAP based on self-regulation and is therefore thwarting any possibility to put in place a «smart mix» of regulatory and voluntary measures, as advocated by Ruggie. Kenya’s Attorney General, Githu Muigai, who spoke only moments after the Swiss President, made for a drastic contrast when he stated: “The voluntary action of companies is welcome and necessary, but it is not enough. Strict measures and laws are needed.”
As mentioned in an earlier speech by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Switzerland is one of the only countries in which a NAP has been discussed in Parliament. This debate was initiated by the Parliament itself in concerted efforts with Swiss civil society. In 2015, a coalition of 80 Swiss civil society organizations launched the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative. The initiative would compel Swiss-based multinational companies to undertake human rights and environmental due diligence in their business activities abroad. The 120’000 signatures gathered for the initiative were handed over to the Swiss authorities last October. We urge the Federal Council to take up this proposal and overlook the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ obstructive behavior, which was once again demonstrated today at the UN Forum.
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