The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which were approved by the UN Human Rights Council unanimously in 2011 rests on three pillars: Countries duty to protect human rights, companies’ duty to respect human rights, the third pillar states that victims of human rights violations must have access to remedies.
It has long been clear that since governments signed and ratified human rights conventions they have a duty to ensure such rights are protected, the first pillar was in place but often not implemented. The second pillar enunciated by John Ruggie, Special Representative on Business and Human Rights needed to be understood by business organizations – some of which have larger revenues than many nation states. Now they know- they must ensure this respect everywhere they operate. Not an easy task as some companies have supply chains that stretch across the world.
The third pillar is the crucial one. Not only must countries protect and companies respect human rights but both must ensure that victims of human rights violations have access to remedies. Companies must internally set up sound systems to comply with this obligation and governments must think long and hard how they will ensure this compliance also.
This brings me to Switzerland and to the Responsible Business Initiative underway right now. This initiative which is supported by about 70 organizations means to require all Swiss companies carry out human rights and environmental due diligence wherever they operate. In order to ensure this result a popular initiative has been launched and to date about 34,000 signatures have been collected in Switzerland. 100,000 are required to ensure this proposal be put forward for a national referendum.
Needless to say, this has made Swiss companies and companies based in Switzerland understand the importance of these issues in the strategic thinking of their organizations, an important step.
It is no longer possible for corporations to tell us how credible they are and how sustainable their operations are if they are not willing to ensure that victims of human rights violations have access to justice. Switzerland is a country which allows such access to justice; however the road can be long and expensive. In Switzerland plaintiffs do not have the option to commence class actions, juries will not decide on the amount of damages- (the judge will make this decision)-so in the end of the day the result should be a reasonable one. To my mind Swiss companies should not fear being fair, they should welcome the opportunity to show how authentic they really are.
For a further understanding of the initiative and its intended application please click here.
Mary Mayenfisch-Tobin, BCL, LL.M, Solicitor