The Swiss Amnesty International General Assembly took place this weekend in Lucerne and I was there with Elizabeth Umlas, as we are both members of the Swiss Business and Human Rights group. The central focus of the GA was on the regulation of multinational corporations (MNCs) and the popular initiative discussed in this article I wrote last week.
You will remember that the Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice (SCCJ), with the involvement of more than 60 NGOs, asked the Swiss Federal Council to create the legal basis necessary to ensure that companies with their headquarters in Switzerland respect human rights and the environment globally.
The Coalition then made a decision to launch a popular initiative demanding mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence throughout the operations of Swiss business. The work to collect the 100,000 signatures required to request a binding referendum was a main focus at the Amnesty event this weekend- which began a few days ago..
A serious stakeholder discussion in Lucerne
The meeting began as we heard the testimony of Diana Fonseca concerning the impact of the mining operations of Glencore, a Swiss-based company, on her village in Colombia, the story of a village and villagers whose lives would never be the same again. Dr Michael Fahrbach , Head of Sustainability for Glencore then gave the company perspective on the issues.
A round table debate followed on the initiative to regulate Swiss multinational corporations, with the participation of a diverse stakeholder panel. Daniele Gosteli- Hauser, Head of Business and Human Rights, Amnesty International Switzerland; Dominique Biedermann CEO of Ethos ; Regina Amman, Head of Public Policy Switzerland, Syngenta and Dr Fahrbach of Glencore.
A Swiss legal framework to regulate companies
As might be expected, opinions differed in this debate with regards to the necessity of a Swiss legal framework to regulate Swiss MNEs. Both Ethos and Amnesty International feel the framework is vital and could strengthen Swiss companies working globally. The Rana Plaza disaster was evoked, as was the lack of progress in helping victims of the disaster and addressing corporations’ responsibility for human rights abuses in their supply chains, although two years have already passed since the factory collapse in Bangladesh. Gosteli-Hause from Amnesty International stated clearly the need for legal regulation of multinationals, given that the law has not kept up with changes in the globalized business landscape.
Dominique Biedermann, discussed the inadequacy of company codes of conduct to deal with issues companies face; he felt more precision is needed for companies. “It is good for Swiss companies to provide goods which are of good quality and are, environmentally and socially sound” he said. For Mr Biedermann voluntary initiatives are not enough.
Amnesty’s Daniele Gosteli Hauser feels the mandatory human rights due diligence initiative would lead to transparency for companies, which would provide a common legal base for everyone, both non-governmental organizations and companies. This would, she said, be an advantage for everyone.
Regina Amman of Syngenta and Michael Fahrbach from Glencore did not agree with this reasoning as they felt the Swiss law adequately regulates Swiss companies. Really? In view of the multitude of human rights abuses suffered every day, everywhere, as a result of corporate actions, I found this difficult to agree with.
A member of the audience asked a pertinent question, “Why are Swiss companies afraid to take responsibility in their own country for actions in other countries?” she wondered.
In my opinion, a legal framework would help everyone do business in a transparent, accountable and responsible way.
Let’s be the pioneers, Switzerland. Let’s show the world how business should be done. Let’s set a good example for the rest of the world!
Mary Mayenfisch-Tobin, BCL, LL.M, Solicitor