Swiss voters on Sunday rejected measures that would have heightened penalties against Switzerland-based companies that violate UN human rights mandates or harm the environment abroad.
The proposal, titled “Responsible companies — to protect people and the environment,” was aimed at introducing new statutory obligations for Swiss businesses. It initially won by a narrow majority of votes, with 50.7 percent in support and 49.3 percent in opposition. However, the measure ultimately failed after the majority of the country’s cantons (states) expressed disapproval.
According to the Federal Council, the seven-member executive council, which makes up the federal government of the Swiss Confederation, the initiative would have required “Swiss companies to examine whether they can comply with internationally recognized human rights and environmental standards when carrying out their business operations.” Under the measure, Swiss companies could be held liable for human rights and environmental damage caused by their own operations and those of their subsidiaries, suppliers and business partners. Consequently, any failure to comply would have led to fines.
“Swiss companies are expected to uphold human rights and comply with environmental standards, not just in Switzerland but also when doing business abroad,” said the Federal Council. “Switzerland has played an active role in drawing up uniform international standards and has taken measures to ensure these standards are implemented.” The federal government opposed the initiative, which was championed by progressive groups and civil society organizations, including the Responsible Business Initiative: “For the authors of this initiative, [current] measures do not go far enough.”
Under Switzerland’s direct democracy system, voters get to express their opinion on federal decisions several times a year. To pass, however, proposals require a majority of both of the votes cast and approval from individual cantons. In response to the failed initiative, the federal government plans to propose a “more mild” countermeasure aimed at bolstering corporate responsibility.
The initiative is the first to fail on a statewide basis after winning the popular vote in more than 60 years.