Press Release: The compromise on a counter-proposal to the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative sinks in the Council of State.

On the 13th March, the Council of State in Switzerland (the second chamber in the Swiss Parliament) decided by a narrow majority not to enter into deliberations on the counter-proposal to the popular Responsible Business Initiative (RBI).

The decision is not surprising. The past week has been marked by intense lobby pressure from part of the corporate sector, led by the multinational corporations Swissholdings and Economiesuisse.

The decision by the Council of State stands in contradiction to the position of the National Council (the first chamber in the Parliament), which in June 2018 passed the counter-proposal with the support of a wide majority (121 versus 73 votes). With its decision yesterday, the second chamber has rejected the introduction into the Swiss legal system of rules aimed at protecting human rights and the planet.

In practical terms, the vote means that multinational corporations such as Glencore, Syngenta and Novartis can continue their business with total disregard of their impacts and without fear of legal consequences.  

The success of the corporate lobby in the Parliament's second chamber results from a twofold strategy. On the one hand, Economiesuisse and Swissholdings have been blocking the counter-proposal from the very beginning of the parliament's discussions, ignoring the concessions made in their favour. This attitude contrasts with that of the initiators of the RBI, which had accepted up-to twenty limitations to the original text in order to facilitate an agreement on the urgently needed law. 

On the other hand, the two corporations had fed a climate of uncertainty in the run-up to the Council's vote with an array of false statements, according to the RBI's Committee.

The counter-proposal will now go back to the National Council (lower house), which will have to decide if it sticks to its proposed bill or not. The RBI’s Committee maintains its commitment to consider withdrawing the popular initiative in the event that the National Council’s counter-proposal is finally adopted. If this does not happen, the RBI could be subject to a popular vote (referendum) in 2020.

Dick Mary, the co-president of the Committee of the Initiative, looks at the possibility of a popular vote with calm: “I am optimistic, given the important support that the RBI has received, including, in particular, among the economic sector. These companies have noted that the continuous scandals involving Swiss companies harm our country and that the proposed legal reform will help the Swiss economy to get ready for the future”.

What does the Initiative ask for?

The Responsible Business Initiative (RBI) aims at changing the Swiss Constitution in order to oblige companies ensure respect for human rights and the environment in the course of their business operations. To meet their obligation, companies will have to conduct Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD). In order to ensure respect with this law by all companies covered, damage caused must lead to legal consequences. Under the new law, multinational corporations would be also liable for the human rights violations caused by their subsidiaries, when the damage resulted from a breach of the parent company’s HRDD obligations.

Notes:

- This article is a translation from the original Press Release. Read the original document in French and in German.

- More information on the Responsible Business Initiative, the counter-proposal, legal analyses and more on BHRinlaw.org website.