A broad coalition of civil society groups has launched a people’s initiative calling for stricter rules to force Swiss companies to respect human rights and environmental standards abroad as well as at home.
The “Responsible Business Initiative”, launched on Tuesday in the Swiss capital, Bern, seeks to ensure that all Swiss companies carry out proper human rights and environmental due diligence, integrating these aspects into their business practices.
The coalition of 66 non-governmental organisations says it has launched the initiative, which could end in a nationwide vote in the next few years, as lengthy talks between politicians, business leaders and activists have led to few specific measures to ensure Swiss firms assume their human rights responsibilities.
The Swiss cabinet and parliament continue to focus exclusively on voluntary measures for businesses, the coalition claims. Parliament narrowly rejected a motion in mid-March for mandatory human rights due diligence.
Although the problem of greater corporate responsibility is recognised, more pressure from civil society is needed to introduce mandatory requirements, the coalition declared on Tuesday.
Manon Schick, director of the Swiss branch of Amnesty International, accused Swiss firms of continuing to be tied to scandals such as catastrophic working conditions in textile factories in Asia or abusive child labour in cocoa production in West Africa.
“The self-regulation of firms has shown its limits,” she said at a press conference on Tuesday.
Switzerland is home to numerous multinationals, including an estimated 500 in the commodities sector, such as giants Glencore and Trafigura, which represent 3.5% of the country’s gross domestic product.
The coalition includes former cabinet ministers Ruth Dreifuss and Micheline Calmy-Rey, former senator and prosecutor Dick Marty and former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross Cornelio Sommaruga.
According to the campaigners, companies must fully take on board the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted in 2011. They must review all their business relationships and activities with a view to identifying potential risks to people and the environment.
They must then take effective measures to combat the potentially negative impacts identified. As a third step, companies are required to report transparently on the violated rights that they have identified, as well as the related measures taken.
On Tuesday 500 people took part in a demonstration in Lausanne to protest against speculation by commodity traders. Senior executives from firms like Trafigura, Cargill, Guvnor, Mercuria and Louis Dreyfus, traders, academics and industry officials are currently taking part in the 4th FT Commodities Global Summit at the Beau Rivage Hotel from April 20-22, 2015.
A people’s initiative allows citizens to propose a change to the Swiss constitution. For the change to be put to a nationwide vote, at least 100,000 valid signatures have to be collected and submitted to the Federal Chancellery within 18 months for consideration.
The proposal goes before parliament, which can accept the initiative, reject it or make a counter-proposal. The people get to vote on it in any case. For an initiative to succeed, it has to carry both a majority of voters and a majority of the cantons.
swissinfo.ch with agencies