Human rights are not a gift, but a duty

Article as analysis
Peter Niggli, Director of Alliance Sud, about the Federal Council's report on business and human rights, and the need for binding rules.

According to information supplied by the human rights organization Global Witness, 908 people have been killed since 2002 while defending themselves against transnational commodity corporations wishing to appropriate their land or chop down their forests.

According to the new Global Rights Index put out by the International Trade Union Confederation, in 2013, wage earners in 35 countries seeking to obtain decent wages and working conditions were imprisoned; in 9 countries they were murdered, and in 53 countries they were dismissed for trying to negotiate better working conditions. They paid dearly for trying to claim internationally consecrated labour rights.

We receive reports like this month after month. Those primarily responsible for human rights abuses are the respective Governments. The struggle for improvements must therefore take place in the countries concerned. But corporations also bear responsibility: they could take action in their sphere of influence. No-one is forcing them, in complicity with Governments, to take advantage of the vulnerable legal situation of small farmers or indigenous people so as to hog land, pollute groundwater, violently suppress strikes and hire workers at starvation wages. For 15 years now this has been an ongoing topic – a few thousand corporations have promised voluntarily improvements. Yet the human rights abuses continue – including by «volunteers».

Attempts have therefore been made in the United Nations to create a globally binding set of rules for all transnational enterprises; it was successfully torpedoed by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in place since 2011 therefore call on individual States to take action and force their transnational corporations to respect human rights. In 2012, the Swiss «Corporate Justice» alliance followed up with a petition to the Federal Council and Parliament, demanding, amongst other things, that a duty of care for corporate management bodies and corresponding management systems be prescribed by law.

The Federal Council presented a substantial report on the matter in May setting out some possibilities as to how the duty of care could be written into law and given shape. Taken together, they add up to the minimum being demanded by «Corporate Justice». The Government is refraining from itself making any recommendations however, leaving the initiative to the Parliament. As a precaution, the Trade Association and the Liberal Party (FDP) reject binding regulations – instead the FDP is calling for the international regulatory framework that failed because of resistance from the business lobby. Our task is to ensure that the report will not be picked to pieces and shelved.

Peter NIggli was Director of Alliance Sud until summer 2015.