Is that still Switzerland? Corporations are insulted as “scoundrels”, non-governmental organizations are denigrated as murderers, a minister has to justify herself for false statements, and a parliamentarian brings the trade minister from Burkina Faso to Bern to make it clear who is really on the side of the good guys.
There is no doubt: the dispute over the so-called corporate responsibility initiative will go down as one of the bitterest voting battles in Switzerland’s history, as advocates and opponents have attacked each other so fiercely in recent months. The Swiss vote on Sunday.
If they endorse the proposed constitutional passage with a double majority of voters and the cantons, the country will soon have one of the toughest supply chain laws in the world. Internationally active companies based in Switzerland should therefore also respect human rights and international environmental standards abroad. So far, so undisputed, after all, Switzerland also stands behind the corresponding UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
The group responsibility initiative wants to cast this principle into binding national law: Firstly, the companies should ensure that the subsidiaries and suppliers they control adhere to these rules. The corporations would be obliged to carry out a due diligence.
Second, the initiative wants companies to be liable for human rights violations and environmental damage that they or their subsidiaries have committed abroad. People who can prove that they have been harmed by a Swiss company or one of its partners abroad could in future sue before Swiss courts.
130 human rights, development and environmental groups support the popular initiative
The orange flags with the white yes on Swiss balconies have been fluttering for more than four years: only a few popular initiatives have occupied the country as long as this one. Several dozen human rights, development and environmental groups launched the project in 2015, and today the support association has grown to 130 organizations.
In addition, there are the left and green forces in parliament who are in favor of the initiative. On the other side: the Swiss government, the big business associations and the conservative parties. A kind of battle of the giants has gripped the country, and indeed there is a lot at stake.
The voting proposal, which is only a few paragraphs short, leaves a lot open. For example, it is not entirely clear whether the rules would apply to all companies in the country, i.e. not only the large multinationals but also the many small and medium-sized enterprises.
At this point, many opponents are bothered: They fear that the initiative would paralyze the Swiss economy with the extensive due diligence process and an alleged wave of lawsuits. Small companies in particular, so the argument goes, could hardly meet the requirements. The concrete form of the proposal would ultimately be a matter for Parliament, which would have to turn the initiative into a law if it were adopted.
So far only a few countries have really catchy company rules for activities abroad. In France, for example, a law has been in force since 2017 that also obliges companies to carry out due diligence and makes them liable in the event of violations. In the UK, since 2015, larger companies have had to demonstrate what they are doing to combat human trafficking.
There is no liability mechanism, but a case law that has repeatedly punished companies for violations abroad. And in Germany, the development and labor ministries are currently working on a supply chain law that also provides for company liability, but so far the ministry of economics has been opposed to this. So Switzerland would not be alone if the initiative got through – but its set of rules would be among the strictest in the world.
And that with a considerable density of large corporations. Nestlé is based in Switzerland, as are the pharmaceutical giants Roche and Novartis, the agrochemicals group Syngenta, the building materials manufacturer Lafarge-Holcim and, last but not least, the high-turnover raw materials traders: Glencore, Cargill, Gunvor, Mercuria, Vitol. All of these companies would definitely be affected by the new regulation. And: Many of them have already been associated with problematic behavior abroad.
Given this phalanx of adversaries, it is remarkable that the initiative has a real chance. The latest polls see proponents at at least 51 percent. However: The no-camp is catching up. It will be tight on Sunday – the nerves are accordingly bare.
First, the liberal-progressive movement “Operation Libero” received heavy criticism for calling all opponents of the duty of care for companies to be scoundrels. Then Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter stood out with statements that experts later had to correct. Some lawyers therefore accused the government of giving unfounded reasons for rejecting the initiative.
And finally the thing with the videos: Since October, drastic films of unclear origin have been circulating on the Internet, showing the proponents of the initiative as violent rioters and associating non-governmental organizations with executions and rape. Sunday will show who won this rough voting battle.