Update: 04.05.2016

Responsible Business Initiative: 140,000 signatures collected

140,000 signatures supporting the Responsible Business Initiative have been collected within 12 months. The referendum requests that companies based in Switzerland do their due diligence in human rights and environmental areas.
The Responsible Business Initiative Association is preparing for the upcoming information and argumentative phase of its work. The committee will officially submit the signature list in autumn 2016. Then the Federal Council and Parliament will discuss the issue before a popular vote is held.

About the Initiative

The legal protection of humans and the environment has not kept pace with globalisation. There are catastrophic working conditions in clothing factories in the Far East and in Eastern Europe, child labour in cocoa production in West Africa, and deadly emissions in commodity mining in Zambia. Swiss companies are also involved in human rights violations and the destruction of the global environment. All the previous measures adopted to introduce binding rules for transnationally active companies have failed. That is why over 60 organisations from Swiss civil society, including humanrights.ch, launched the Responsible Business Initiative on 21 April 2015.

Why is there a need for action in Switzerland?

At the launch of the initiative, Cornelio Sommaruga, former President of the ICRC and member of the initiative committee, declared: «As host state of various humanitarian organisations as well as home to many transnational companies, Switzerland bears a big responsibility. In the interest of the reputation of our country we have to demand appropriate action from these companies». In his opinion it is necessary for Switzerland to avoid getting into a situationwhere the country's policy options are dictated by bilateral and multilateral foreign political pressure as was the case within the Swiss financial industry. For this reason, the group responsibility initiative is an important step to the benefit of Switzerland.

The initiative includes issues which have been debated on an international level since at least 2011 when the «UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights» were adopted. For Manon Schick, head of Amnesty International Switzerland, it is evident that the effective implementation of these Guiding Principles not only depends on promoting voluntary codices of action. She points out that the Guiding Principles recommend a smart mix of voluntary and legally binding measures. In her opinion, as Switzerland is home to numerous globally active companies, the country has the necessary means to take a leading role by making it a legal obligation for such companies to conduct due diligence examination.

Due diligence examination and liability in Switzerland

The Responsible Business Initiative requires all companies domiciled in Switzerland to conduct due diligence on its own operations in the areas of human rights and the environment. This instrument is based on the above-mentioned «UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights». According to the plans of the initiative, transnational companies have to disclose all their business practices and relationships in order to identify possible risks to human beings and the environment. Afterwards they have to apply effective countermeasures against these potentially negative effects of their business activities. A third step requires companies to report transparently on possible violations of human and environmental rights and on the steps taken to avoid them in the future.

In order to guarantee that all companies conduct due diligence of their operations, Swiss-domiciled transnational companies also have to take responsability for human rights violations committed or environmental damage done by companies controlled by them. A group can avail itself of such liability if it can prove that it has carried out the due diligence examination comprehensively and that it has taken all necessary measures to remedy and avoid any breach of its obliigations under the Guiding Principles. The initiative thus has a preventive effect and provides transnational groups with an important incentive to behave responsibly.

To date the Federal Council backs voluntary commitment

This new initiative takes up the demands of the «Rights without Borders» campaign. This campaign was launched in 2011 as a petition and was signed by 135,000 people within a remarkably short amount of time. As a consequence the Federal Council and Parliament repeatedly dealt with the topic. Although the Federal Council acknowledges the great responsibility of Swiss companies with regard to human rights and environmental issues at home and abroad, it prefers the promotion of voluntary action by such companies.

Parliament on the other hand has removed – by a tight majority and in a dubious manner – the key issues from the «Rights without Borders» petition in March 2015, namely the inclusion of an examination of due diligence, probably due to intense lobbying by influential economic actors. With the current popular initiative pressure is put on the Confederation to legislate on the obligations of companies domiciled in Switzerland or having their main headquarters or main branches in this country.

The collection of signatures starts as of now. Up-to-date and background information is available on www.konzern-initiative.ch.


Further information

© humanrights.ch / MERS - Hallerstr. 23 - CH-3012 Bern - Tel. +41 31 302 01 61