No country in the world has more multinational corporations per capita than Switzerland. Various companies based here or their subsidiaries abroad regularly hit the headlines for their violations of human rights or environmental standards in countries of the global South: Glencore evicts farmers who are fighting for their land rights, Lafarge Holcim covers entire villages with particulate matter hazardous to health, Swiss refineries melt gold stemming from highly dubious sources.
However, corporate headquarters in Switzerland are legally not liable for the business practices of companies under their control. Those affected, who defend themselves locally against the violation of their rights, are often intimidated and confronted with corrupt investigative and judicial authorities.
While official Switzerland is committed to the further development of human rights and environmental standards at the international level, it is reluctant to take reasonable legal measures at home to regulate companies.
The Swiss Federal Council puts forward that it is sufficient for companies to voluntarily adhere to human rights and environmental standards and – as its indirect counter-proposal to the initiative suggests – to use glossy brochures as regular reports to underline their efforts in this regard. After a political rope-pulling exercise that lasted four years, the majority of parliament finally endorsed the Swiss government’s position in the summer of 2020.
The Responsible Business Initiative demands something that goes without saying. Even opponents of the initiative admit that their concerns – the protection of human rights and the environment – are undisputed. No Swiss company that adheres to the basic rules of responsible entrepreneurship need fear reasonable legal regulation; the fear of costs and excessive bureaucracy is unfounded.
Nevertheless, the lobby organisations SwissHoldings and Economiesuisse are vehemently opposed to the Responsible Business Initiative. Honni soit qui mal y pense: Only black sheep can argue this way, one-sidedly sheer profit oriented pressure groups that consequently ignore principles such as fairness and responsibility.
It is well known that irresponsible profit-seeking can collide with legitimate concerns for social (and ecological) balance. For decades, the United Nations has therefore been trying to regulate the area of «business and human rights» in such a way that legitimate interests can be brought into balance. A milestone in this respect was the unanimous adoption of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. These principles commit States to ensure that companies under their jurisdiction respect human rights. This is to be achieved through a mix of voluntary measures by companies and binding state regulations, a so-called smart mix.
However, official Switzerland is finding it difficult to implement these Ruggie Principles (named after their author): In November 2011, a handful of organizations – including Alliance Sud – launched the «Justice without Borders» petition, which called on the Federal Council and parliament to draft a law requiring companies based in Switzerland to respect human rights and environmental standards throughout the world. In spring 2015, the National Council narrowly supported a motion calling for a law on a human rights due diligence obligation for companies. At the request of the Christian Democratic Party (CVP), the vote was repeated and some MPs changed their minds. Following this manoeuvre, more than 60 civil society organisations decided to launch the Responsible Business Initiative. On 10 October 2016, the «people's initiative for responsible companies to protect people and the environment» was submitted with over 120,000 valid signatures.
In the four years that followed, a seemingly endless back and forth in the National Council, the Council of States and their commissions was reminiscent of the so called racketeering initiative: despite broad popular support, parliament failed to draw up a counter-proposal to the initiative that would have allowed the initiators to withdraw their polpular initiative.
As a think tank for development policy, Alliance Sud played a central role in the struggle for a legal anchoring of corporate responsibility from the outset. Its former managing director Peter Niggli and its current director Mark Herkenrath are members of the initiative committee, Herkenrath also serves on the association's board of directors, which coordinates the initiative.
With a YES to the Responsible Business Initiative on 29 November, Switzerland can show its solidarity and openness to the world and that its companies stand by their global responsibility.
You will find the following additional information on the website of the Initiative: