While the members of the Swiss lower house were approving the counter-proposal to the responsible business initiative, Ethos Foundation organised a conference and debate on Thursday 13th June 2019 in Bern on the topic of "multinational companies and respect for human rights: ethical, economic and political issues". Almost 120 people attended the event.

After a presentation by the Professor Mark Pieth, professor of Criminal Law at the University of Basel, four panelists discussed the need to regulate the activities of Swiss companies abroad in the field of human rights and environmental protection.

As a member of the Responsible Business initiative committee, Chantal Peyer reminded that the initiative would be withdrawn if the current counter-proposal were to be approved by parliament - i.e. now the Swiss upper house. "We are pragmatic and have a culture of compromise," she explained. Our objective is to prevent human rights violations from continuing. Furthermore, if the initiative were to be maintained and accepted by the Swiss population, it would take several years to draft the law, a period of time during which violations would continue on the field.”

Denise Laufer, member SwissHoldings’ Executive Committee, explained why the Federation of Swiss based multinational enterprises is opposed to both the initiative and the current counter-proposal. "We are not opposed to the fundamental purpose of the two texts that we obviously support," she said. But we believe that the instruments proposed today are not the right ones”.

According to Denise Laufer, Switzerland is taking the risk of moving alone and further than other countries in terms of regulation. Moreover, requiring companies to control their entire production chain, sometimes extremely complex, would represent an unacceptable legal risk. Finally, the initiators would seek to be able to organise majorly mediatised prosecutions in Switzerland with Swiss taxpayers' money. "We do not trust foreign states to solve problems themselves on the spot, but we would trust the evidence that would come from those same countries," she said. “This approach does not seem very consistent.”

According to Lucius Dürr, former PDC deputy and member of the counter-project support committee, the economy has changed and Swiss companies are now aware of their responsibilities. "Obviously the effort must be reasonable and a screw manufacturer will not have the same duty of care as a mine operator or a textile trader," he stressed. According to him, the counter-proposal will not affect the competitiveness of Swiss companies. On the contrary, "Switzerland is a leader in many areas, and it is only natural that it should also be when it comes to defending our values," he said.

Samuel Schweizer, a member of management of Ernst Schweizer AG and one of the entrepreneurs who publicly supported the initiative, stressed that the quality of Swiss companies should not stop at the quality of their products. "As an industrial company, we are used to controlling our supply chain, it is an integral part of risk management," he added. “It is now simply a matter of taking into account new aspects such as respect for human rights and the environment.”

Finally, Chantal Peyer pointed out that it was wrong to say that companies should control the suppliers of their suppliers’ suppliers. "We want companies to take action where they can have a real impact," she said. “The text of the counter-proposal is very explicit on this subject: only 1000 Swiss companies will be affected by the law and will have to implement processes.”

She also recalled that it was often difficult to initiate legal proceedings in countries where access to justice was obstructed, and pointed out that Switzerland was not acting alone but, on the contrary, this was a global trend aiming at making United Nations business and human rights "Ruggie principles" binding. Finally, she stressed that the counter-proposal was supported by many economic actors and that it was not just a simple opposition between a few NGOs and the economy. "A law will simply clarify things," she said. “Starting for companies.”

The final word went to the President of Ethos Foundation Rudolf Rechsteiner. He told the assembly that he had been surprised by the Swiss upper house’s refusal to discuss the counter-proposal last March. He now sees the time as adequate to seek a compromise that demonstrates the strength of Switzerland and its economy.

Slides from Prof. Mark Pieth (in German)