Schick Manon : "Are Swiss multinationals models of integrity?"

Schick Manon : "Are Swiss multinationals models of integrity?"


While buying chocolate at the supermarket, I would like to be sure that cocoa beans have not been harvested by children in Ivory Coast. And I would like to be assured that workers who manufactured my clothes are not working in hazardous conditions in Bangladesh. Is that idealistic? It might soon become a reality.


A cluster of 66 organizations, which include Amnesty International, has launched a popular initiative. Our goal is to modify the Swiss Constitution to include the obligation for multinationals to better respect and abide by human rights and the environment. There is no reason to accept that their subsidiaries abroad have practices that we would never tolerate in our country. Especially when the situation is worrying: a study from the University of Maastricht, covering 1,800 cases, shows that Switzerland ranks ninth among the countries where multinationals have been accused of or have been involved in human rights abuses in the world. The study is based on several criticisms posted on a website: Knowing that our country is among those that host the bigger number of multinationals per capita obviously influences this ranking.

Protecting human beings from multinationals’ abuses? This issue has already been addressed at the international level. In 2011, the UN adopted specific Guidelines for companies, calling them to respect human rights throughout the world. States, including those where the multinationals have their headquarters, must ensure that these principles are respected. In practice however, impunity still prevails as governments do not impose any constraints on companies to protect human rights and the environment. At best, they support multinationals to take internal and volunteer measures which hinges on the goodwill of the directors and shareholders. This opacity opens the door to all abuses, as noted by the former adviser to Dick Marty: "No one would want that car traffic be based on voluntary principles and be dictated by the law of the strongest. Similarly, the activities of foreign companies must be framed by clear rules. "

Swiss civil society has been struggling for a long time in favor of binding rules. In 2011, our coalition already launched a petition to challenge the Federal Council and Parliament. The campaign was hailed as a first success: the Federal Council acknowledged in a report of May 2014, that "as the host country of many international companies, Switzerland has a great responsibility in respecting human rights and protecting of the environment, especially in regard to countries that do not sufficiently respect the rule of law." However, this assessment lacks concrete proposals. As a result of this, the initiative for responsible multinationals wants to fill in a legal vacuum. It requires a binding framework for companies to systematically respect human rights and the environment, as well as mandatory procedures to scrutinize their subsidiaries’ activities abroad. The text of this initiative introduces the duty of diligence for businesses, which would require them to check that their activities abroad do not result in human rights violations or environmental damages. If companies bypass their diligence duty, they will be held liable for their shortcomings in front of Swiss civil courts.
Swiss companies that behave in an exemplary manner have nothing to fear from this legal requirement. For others, this initiative will act as a preventive effect: they will have to take proactive steps to ensure that their activities do not harm human rights and respect the environment. Is it really asking too much?


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Manon Schick is director of Amnesty International's Switzerland branch since March 2011. She holds a degree in Literature from Lausanne University. She started her career as a journalist at l'Illustré and Radio Acidule, before leaving for Colombia to work as a volunteer with Peace Brigades International in 2003, where she accompanied local Human rights organisations. She became a volunteer for Amnesty at the age of 22. Since 2004, she holds the role of spokesperson for the Swiss branch and joined its management in 2007.