corporate social responsibility

World’s strictest corporate responsibility plan fails in Swiss vote

Agence France-Presse

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World’s strictest corporate responsibility plan fails in Swiss vote

SWISS VOTE. A man looks at a campaign banner reading in French 'Responsible enterprise, NO to the initiative that misses its target' displayed in the streets of Geneva, Switzerland, on November 29, 2020.

Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

(UPDATED) The proposal would have forced Swiss-headquartered multinationals to ensure they and their suppliers respect strict human rights and environmental protection standards

A plan in Switzerland to impose the world’s strictest corporate responsibility rules, which would have made Swiss-headquartered multinationals liable for abusive business practices worldwide, failed to pass in a vote on Sunday, November 29.

The proposal would have amended the Swiss constitution and forced such companies to ensure they and their suppliers respected strict human rights and environmental protection standards.

But it failed to reach the double majority required for initiatives to pass, under federal Switzerland’s system of direct democracy.

Initiatives require support from a majority of voters nationwide, and from a majority of Switzerland’s 23 cantons, 3 of which are split in half.

While Swiss voters overall backed the initiative by a very narrow margin, a majority in most cantons voted against it – only the 10th time in 637 votes that such an outcome has occurred.

Some 1,299,173 voters, or 50.7%, backed the initiative, according to the official results. The turnout was 47%.

However, it only achieved a majority in 8 and a half cantons – including the 4 major cities of Zurich, Geneva, Basel, and the capital Bern – with the rest voting against.

Softer counter-proposal triggered

The initiative was launched by an alliance of 130 non-governmental organizations and had the backing of trade unions and church groups.

It was opposed by both the government and parliament, which warned that while its intention was good, the proposed legislation went “too far.”

The rejection by voters automatically activated the government’s counter-proposal, which also requires companies to report on rights, environmental protections, and corruption issues – but without being liable for violations.

Multinationals are important drivers of the Swiss economy, which at the end of 2018 numbered close to 29,000, accounting for more than a quarter of all jobs in the country.

“This result is a great relief, because the initiative created uncertainty for the entire fabric of the Swiss economy, including small and medium enterprises,” Cristina Gaggini, director of the Economiesuisse business lobby group, told ATS news agency.

Swiss Greenpeace voiced disappointment but said its key point had been validated by the popular vote.

“The perpetrators of pollution or violations of fundamental freedoms must face up to their responsibilities and take the consequences,” it said.

Weapons financing ban rejected

Meanwhile voters rejected a separate proposal to ban funding companies that manufacture weapons and other materials of war – a move which could have blocked billions of dollars worth of investments.

The initiative would have barred the Swiss central bank and pension funds from investing in companies that make more than 5% of revenues from sales of war material – while arms manufacturers would have been denied credit lines in Switzerland.

The initiative failed on both counts.

Some 1,460,755 voters, or 57.5%, voted against the proposal, again on a 47% turnout.

Furthermore, a majority in only 3 and a half cantons voted in favor.

Neutrality question

Famously neutral Switzerland, which has not been to war in centuries, already bans the production of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, as well as landmines and cluster munitions.

But a coalition of peace groups and left-leaning parties sought to ban financing any companies that make any form of war material, including assault rifles, tanks, and their components. 

According to a report earlier this month by research group Profundo, the Swiss National Bank (SNB), large banks like UBS and Credit Suisse, and other Swiss financial institutions have nearly $11 billion worth of loans and investments in arms companies, including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop.

Backers of the initiative claimed such investments were “incompatible” with Swiss neutrality.

But the government said the definition would effectively block funding civil aviation firms, and harm pensions.

The SNB said its investments helped support monetary policy and preserve the value of currency reserves.

“The SNB can continue to pursue its tried-and-tested investment policy,” it said, following the result. –

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