Update: 09.11.2011

Tight parliamentary rejection of the initiative «Clear rules for Swiss transnational companies, worldwide»

After a stormy debate on 11 March 2015, the National Council rejected a motion by the National Council Foreign Affairs Committee calling for a legal basis for obligatory due diligence assessments for transnational companies. Civil society now wants to increase the pressure for its objective once more: the «popular initiative for the responsibility of transnational enterprises» (Konzernverantwortungsinitiative) will be launched at the end of April 2015.

Last-minute U-turn

A tight majority in parliament does not care about a future-oriented Swiss human rights and economic policy, commented the organisation «Rights without Borders» in a media release on 11 March 2015. The debate in the National Council had started on a positive note, since after an intense discussion on this important topic the motion had been accepted at first by the council with 91 to 90 votes thanks to the deciding vote of the President. «Rights without Borders» says that «for around one and a half hours Switzerland was at the forefront on the topic of a socially responsible economy». But then came a complete reversal which was supported by the political right of the Council, conservative economic lobbying groups – namely Economiesuisse and Swissholdings. Finally the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) launched a proposal for reconsideration. Shortly before the end of the Council’s session there was a renewed poll on the topic and this time the result was the opposite of the first one – 95 MPs voted against the motion and only 86 for it.

«Rights without Borders» is convinced that the proposal receives widespread support by economic representatives from the progressive side. A significant parliamentary minority is of the opinion that if Switzerland wants to be ready for the future, the country will have to demand tangible improvements from its companies regarding corporate social responsibility. The vote also demonstrated that nothing will change in this area in Switzerland without pressure being exerted on the companies. For this reason, some 60 NGOs, amongst them humanrights.ch, have decided to launch the «popular initiative for the responsibility of transnational enterprises» (Konzernverantwortungsinitiative). It will be open to the public for signatures at the end of April 2015.

«Rights without Borders» campaign

Over the past years, the «Rights without Borders» campaign, an alliance including humanrights.ch, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, church aid organisations as well as trade unions and women’s associations has repeatedly been calling for obligatory sustainable standards for transnational companies and stricter regulations for the industry.

Personal responsibility is not enough

Whether Glencore in Congo, Holcim in Guatemala or Triumph in Thailand: Swiss transnational companies repeatedly come into conflict with human rights and environmental standards. Over the last few years, many of these companies have given themselves regulations for a socially and ecologically responsible behaviour (corporate social responsibility). Unfortunately, these initiatives are legally not binding. The enterprises define for themselves the meaning of «social and ecological responsibility», and frequently an independent supervisory authority does not exist. Investigative reports are kept under tight wraps and infringements are not punished.

International efforts

The UN and the OECD attempt to increase their influence in order to make transnational companies respect human rights better. The OECD has recently revised its guidelines for multinational companies and has added a chapter to human rights. But these additions, too, are legally not binding either. In June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted recommendations by John Ruggie, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights. His concept builds on three pillars. Firstly, all governments have to protect the human rights, including from violations by enterprises. Secondly, all enterprises carry a responsibility for the respect of human rights. And thirdly, people getting hurt because of human rights violations of enterprises have a claim to compensation.

Postulations by «Rights without Borders»

This is where the «Rights without Borders» campaigning efforts begin. The Federal Council and both chambers of parliament are called upon to issue legal measures to ascertain that Swiss transnational companies, their subsidiaries and suppliers have to observe human rights and environmental norms worldwide. In concrete terms this means that

  • Swiss transnational companies have to take due diligence for themselves, their subsidiaries and their suppliers, in order to prevent human rights violations and environmental damage here or abroad, and that
  • people being injured or suffering damage through the activities of Swiss transnational companies, their subsidiaries and suppliers can institute proceedings and ask for reparation.

Switzerland is particularly challenged

As location of a great number of internationally active companies Switzerland carries a particular responsibility. As a matter of fact, Switzerland has the highest rate of such enterprises. Thanks to low taxes and other advantages it is not only interesting for long-established but also attracts growing number of dubious newcomers, for example in the commodities or security sectors. Official Switzerland, unfortunately, up to now has always spoken against legally binding regulations for multinational companies – it’s high time for a change in policy!

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