NGO-investor coalition seeks binding UN human rights principles at Swiss firms

Pension-backed Ethos among those supporting implementation of ‘Ruggie’ framework

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The mandatory application of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, known as the ‘Ruggie Principles’, could become a reality for Swiss firms if a campaign by a coalition of NGOs, shareholder groups and others is successful.

The Swiss Coalition of Corporate Justice (SCCJ), an association backed by NGOs like Amnesty International and Greenpeace as well as corporate governance groups Ethos and Actares, is seeking a national referendum on whether the government should require Swiss firms to uphold the principles, a framework for companies to identify and deal with human rights risks in their supply chains.

The SCCJ claims that some Swiss companies – for example mining firm Glencore, building materials firm Holcim and motorcycle firm Triumph – have violated environmental and human rights standards in their foreign operations.

In 2011, the association petitioned the government to demand that firms based in Switzerland stop such abuses and garnered 135,000 signatures from Swiss citizens in the effort. The effort was not, however, successful.

The SCCJ said: “Although the government has recognized the problems in the arena of human rights and the related reputational risks posed by such, all the solutions proposed so far have focused on voluntary measures. Neither the government nor Parliament has been prepared to formulate legally binding requirements on the companies.”To force the government’s hand, the SCCJ has decided to seek a national referendum on the issue, just like supporters of the so-called Minder corporate governance reforms did before it.

Swiss law requires the government to approve a national referendum on a proposal if it can collect 100,000 signatures within 18 months.

According to Rahel Ruch, one of SCCJ’s chief organisers, that shouldn’t be a problem, considering the scale of support in 2011. “The whole point of our campaign is to introduce a way for Swiss companies to identify and deal with human rights abuses in their supply chains,” she said.

Speaking for Ethos, Chief Executive Dominique Biedermann, said his firm welcomed SCCJ’s initiative as it was material to a company board’s oversight function. “Such oversight should be complemented by a review of any risks associated with human rights or environmental violations,” said Biedermann, whose firm is backed by 150 Swiss pension funds.

A spokesman for Economie Suisse, Switzerland’s main business lobby, could not be reached for comment. However, Rahel said that it had informed the SCCJ that it supports companies voluntarily upholding the Ruggie principles, named after the former UN Special Representative on business and human rights, John Ruggie, who drew up the framework.

SCCJ plans to unveil its proposal for a referendum in April and then begin the signature campaign a month later. The association has also scheduled a talk with John Ruggie himself for January 26 in Geneva. Link