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Citizens Demand Swiss Firms Be Held Accountable for Human Rights, Environmental Policies

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Leadership & Transparency
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On Monday, the Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice (SCCJ) delivered a petition to the Federal Chancery in Bern to support a proposed constitutional amendment called the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative. With 120,000 signatures, the petition could soon set in motion an initiative on which Switzerland’s citizens would vote in order to compel the country’s multinational companies to complete environmental and human rights due diligence for all of their business activities abroad.

Should this initiative pass -- and this petition scored 20,000 more signatures than needed to place it on a ballot -- companies based in Switzerland would become legally obligated to ensure the protection of both human rights and the environment throughout all of their business operations. Such reviews would be based on the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which behoove companies to respect human rights no matter how large or small. This responsibility also extends companies’ responsibilities to third parties – which means companies could no longer hide behind excuses like “we did not know” when it comes to their supply chains.

Upon becoming law, this amendment would allow citizens across the world who claim either human rights violations or environmental damage to file litigation against companies in Switzerland’s court system. If companies have not completed their due diligence, they will be held liable. If that same company can prove that it completed all the necessary means to prevent such abuses, it would then be judged to be exempt from any such liability.

The petition was delivered after the SCCJ launched previous petitions and parliamentary maneuvers, which until this week were unsuccessful. The SCCJ claims it is joined by 80 NGOs and trade unions, which insist that multinational companies have for too long taken advantage of weak judicial and enforcement systems in the countries in which they operate. Arguing that “Swiss quality” infers high quality standards, fastidious compliance with the law and fair business practices, SCCJ’s petition demands that these companies hold the same standards abroad as they would in Switzerland.

Multinational companies are likely watching the progression of this initiative closely, as companies continue to reincorporate in Switzerland to avoid higher corporate taxes in their home countries.

This trend is especially true of U.S. companies. Garmin, the popular GPS device company founded in Kansas, now has its headquarters in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. And considering the renewed outcry over conflict minerals, it is on this company to ensure its policy on this front is as tightly enforced as the company says. Transocean, which was implicated in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, is also based in Switzerland. And the former Tyco Electronics, now TE Connectivity, has its central corporate offices in the same town as Garmin.

For years, companies have maintained that self-regulation is enough to ensure they are doing what they can to prevent human rights abuses and environmental degradation and mitigate their contributions to climate change. But many NGOs say change isn't happening quickly enough, which is now why Swiss citizens have an opportunity to set a precedent that companies must back up their words with concrete action.

Image credit: Martin Agegglen/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye