Ruggie throws his weight behind Swiss Responsible Business Initiative

Human rights due diligence is on the table in Switzerland

Professor John Ruggie, the architect of the United Nations Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on Business and Human Rights, has come forward to support an initiative that aims at introducing, via referendum, a mandatory human rights due diligence mechanism for Swiss multinational companies.

Behind the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative, there is a coalition of 85 organizations, the Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice, which includes the Swiss pension fund-backed advisory firm Ethos, the sustainable shareholders group Actares and the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund.

In a letter, the Professor of Human Rights and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government says he takes particular interest in following the implementation of measures, including policy and law, to advance business respect for human rights.

The letter comes soon after the Swiss government has made official its opposition to the initiative, maintaining its preference for voluntary measures when it comes to business and human rights issues.

“I was disappointed by the Swiss Government’s decision not to put forward a counter-proposal to the referendum Initiative on responsible business conduct,” Ruggie wrote.

The coalition had drafted a new article to be included in the Swiss constitution entitled “Responsibility of Business” which is informed by the UNGPs (known as the “Ruggie Principles”) and other international standards.Based on the UNGPs, the Initiative is proposing a due diligence obligation for the whole supply chain, underpinned by civil liability only for Swiss multinationals and their controlled subsidiaries.

Béatrix Niser, Campaign Coordinator of the Initiative, told Responsible Investor: “We wanted legal measures and access to remedy. That wasn’t accepted by the executive power, the Swiss Federal Council, so we decided to come up with a popular initiative.” Link

Under Swiss law, Niser explains, such a procedure requires asking for a constitutional change and gather at least 100,000 signatures (more than 120,000 were secured).

Now after the government’s rejection, the initiative will go through the Swiss parliament, which could also reject, approve or offer a counter proposal, such as a bill comprising some of the issues raised by the coalition.

In his letter, Ruggie mentioned the recent precedent of France, that this year passed its law on the duty of vigilance of parent companies, the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, as well as other bills being discussed in other countries such as the Netherlands.

The Initiative is opposed by the Swiss corporate union Économiesuisse, and SwissHoldings, an association convening multinationals, such as P&G, GE, Nestlé or Roche; which they believe it breaches principles of international private law and represents a step backwards regarding corporate responsibility.