Make companies liable for human rights abuses?

Switzerland will vote on November 29 on a popular initiative known as the Responsible Business Initiative (KVI) which sets out standards for Swiss-based companies with respect to environmental and human rights and extends their liability for abuses of these rights, also in their operations outside the country. Commentators from Switzerland and abroad are divided on whether this approach is suitable for achieving the declared objectives.

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Le Temps (CH) /

Preserve Swiss values

Voting yes to the initiative should be a matter of course, a group of members of conservative and liberal parties backing Christian Democrat Delphine Bachmann write in Le Temps:

“The majority of Swiss companies are already acting in an ethically responsible way. So it's only a minority who are tarnishing Switzerland's reputation, and it's their practices we want to see changed. ... Voting yes to this initiative is the only way to preserve our Swiss values. If you read the text without ideological glasses, that's all it demands. Nobody can approve of pollution or child labour, either here or abroad. What would we think if foreign companies behaved like that here?”

Mérce (HU) /

A drop in the ocean

Mérce points out that a similar project is also being discussed in Germany with the Supply Chain Act, but sees clear limitations to the effectiveness of such standards:

“There is no doubt that the Supply Chain Law is to be welcomed: if adopted in Germany and also applied by companies that supply German firms, it can be a more or less effective remedy against some of the revolting side-effects of the capitalist system, such as child labour. ... But it does not essentially change the worldwide inequality that allows a small part of the global society to live well while the majority of the planet's inhabitants work day and night in a situation of severe oppression and exploitation.”

Aargauer Zeitung (CH) /

Part of the solution, not the problem

Multinationals can help strengthen human rights, writes Constantine Bartel, an employee at the Center for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Zurich, in the Aargauer Zeitung:

“The only temporary glimmer of hope in South Sudan was created by a private foreign company. ... [SAB Miller] has developed an innovative recipe for making a good beer using sorghum, an important local crop. ... However, many proponents of the Responsible Business Initiative don't really seem to care. ... They should remember, however, that in South Sudan the worsening of the human rights situation has little or nothing to do with the presence of 'exploitative' corporations. These businesses are currently pulling out of South Sudan, and along with them the small, educated middle class which wanted to participate in the economic reconstruction of the country.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

Better to strengthen the rule of law

The vote is not on human rights and environmental standards but on how to get there, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung points out:

“It would be best to strengthen the rule of law in countries with a weak judiciary. If there are ways to take legal action more easily abroad, it's by no means clear whether this will increase the pressure for reforms at home. ... The demand for immediate compliance with Western standards can be counterproductive. ... For example, companies with programmes aimed at eliminating child labour or improving work conditions among suppliers often take time to achieve success; nevertheless such successes are achieved - in an environment that a company can't change on its own. Those who simply ban child labour run the risk of forcing children into informal work relationships, which is even worse.”