Update: 13.09.2017

The Responsible Business Initiative in brief

Legal protection for people and the environment has not kept pace with economic globalisation. There are deplorable working conditions in clothing factories in Asia and in Eastern Europe, child labour in cocoa production plants in West Africa and deadly emissions from commodity mining in Zambia. Swiss companies are also involved in human rights violations and the destruction of the global environment. For this reason, the Responsible Business Initiative wants transnational companies to sign a binding agreement on measures to avoid such hazardous events in all business practices.

The events to date

The “Rights without Borders” campaign, launched by a coalition of 50 NGOs, got 135,285 people to sign a petition, which was then submitted to the National Council in 2012.

The petition had no political effect so 66 organisations, including humanrights.ch, founded the Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice (SCCJ) in 2015. The popular initiative was launched on 21 April 2015. A year later, the initiators had collected 140,000 signatures and on 10 October 2016, the Responsible Business Initiative was submitted to the Federal Chancellery. Currently, over 80 civil society organisations support the SCCJ.

On 11 January 2017, the Federal Council rejected the Responsible Business Initiative without counter-proposal. According to the media release, the Federal Council supports the core issues of the initiative, but believes the regulations on due diligence and liability obligations are too far reaching. Strangely enough. the Federal Council did not provide a counter-proposal despite its proclaimed support of the initiative.

A survey by the market research institute Demoscope showed that the public is in favour of such an initiative, as are scientists and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. A popular vote on the Responsible Business Initiative will likely take place in the fall of 2018 or the spring of 2019.

What are the Responsible Business Initiative’s aims?

The main aim of the Responsible Business Initiative is to make compliance with human rights and ecology rules and regulations mandatory for all companies. This means that companies must carefully identify the risks to human rights and the environment that result from their business activities. Should such risks be identified, the necessary measures must be taken to reduce these risks. Both steps should be transparently documented. If human rights violations happen or environmental damage does occur, the damage and the measures taken to mitigate it must also be documented.

In order to stress the importance of due diligence, the initiative also includes a new liability regulation. Companies will be liable for the damage done should its business activities in Switzerland or abroad result in human rights violations or environmental damage, if the company cannot prove it prevented any detrimental effects through due diligence. This provision is applicable even if the damage is caused by subsidiaries and suppliers. Swiss companies that neglect due diligence at home or abroad would face claims for reparations before Swiss courts.

If a company can plausibly prove that it conducted a comprehensive due diligence test and took all necessary measures to prevent damage, it will not be held liable. The initiative therefore is preventive and is a powerful incentive for companies to act responsibly.

Relation to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The Responsible Business Initiative is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights from 2011. The principles recommend applying a combination voluntary and legally binding measures, including a due diligence assessment and liability for companies. The UN Guiding Principles have triggered economic movement around the world. More than 25 countries are currently working on implementing national action plans for their implementation. France, for example, passed a similar law in March 2017.

On 9 December 2016, the Federal Council began an action plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles in Switzerland. Although the Federal Council acknowledges that Swiss companies have a responsibility to protect human rights and the environment at home and abroad, it only wants to implement voluntary initiatives. NGOs who support the Responsible Business Initiative have criticised this strategy.

The Responsible Business Initiative's aims are clearly supported by international jurisdiction: In March 2016, the CoE passed respective recommendations, and in June 2017 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights passed the General Comment No. 24 making legal provisions for due diligence for companies obligatory for all member states of the UN Pact I - among them Switzerland.

Previous history: Rights without Borders

An NGO alliance launched the Rights without Borders campaign back in 2011. More than 50 organisations sponsored and supported the campaign, including humanrights.ch. The campaign called for the Federal Council and the Parliament to create legal provisions to ensure that companies based in Switzerland respect human rights and protect the environment worldwide. A petition was created and signed by 135,000 people in a very short period of time, and Parliament and the Federal Council repeatedly addressed the topic in the subsequent years.

On 11 March 2015, Parliament rejected the primary objective of the Rights without Borders petition in a narrow vote. The motion that was voted on would have served as a legal basis for due diligence obligations for companies. Since the motion did not pass, members of the civil society decided to increase the political pressure for their issue and launched the Responsible Business Initiative.

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