Swiss Defeat Corporate Responsibility Initiative

A corporate social responsibility initiative in Switzerland that would have mandated that multinational corporations respect human rights and the environment was narrowly defeated last week.

Ellen Hertz

The provision would have enabled victims of human rights violations and environmental damage around the world to sue Swiss multinationals in courts in Switzerland.

Nationwide, the Swiss voted for the initiative by 50.74 percent (1.299 million votes) to 49.26 percent against (1.261 million votes).

But under the Swiss constitution, a majority of the cantons must also vote for the initiative for it to pass and the initiative lost at the canton level.

Ellen Hertz is a Professor at the University of Neuchatel in Neuchatel, Switzerland and author of the book Business and Human Rights: The Limits of Good Intentions. 

Hertz was active in campaigning for the initiative.

“The vote broke down along regional and sociological lines,” Hertz told Corporate Crime Reporter. “The Italian speaking canton and all five of the French-speaking cantons except the bilingual canton of Vallis voted for the initiative. The industrialized cantons of the Jura and Neuchâtel voted at more than 65 percent in favor. Only three of the German-speaking cantons – the urban cantons of Basel, Bern and Zurich – accepted the initiative, while 17 of them rejected it, sometimes massively.”

“While it looks like a language and culture divide, it is in fact more rooted in geography and history,” Hertz said.  “The German-speaking cantons tend to be more rural or suburban, with lower levels of education and more faith in the traditional pro-business parties. There is also a history of mistrust of urban centers in the historically Catholic cantons of central Switzerland. The campaign against the initiative targeted these regions extensively.”

It was only the second time that a popular majority voted in favor of an initiative that was rejected by a majority of cantons. 

“This is a problem for representative democracy exactly equivalent to the electoral college problem in the United States,” Hertz said.  “Smaller cantons have been given extra power historically, out of fear that they would be dominated by larger ones. This is not a problem that can be solved, as it is written in the constitution, and to change the constitution, you need a two-thirds majority of cantons.” 

Hertz said she was not surprised by the popular majority vote for the initiative.

“I was not surprised because the polling was quite good. It’s nice to live in a country in which a majority of your fellow voting citizens believe that multinationals should be held to account if they violate human rights or create ecological disasters. That being said, less than 40 percent of registered voters voted  – which is average turnout for Swiss popular initiatives.”

“What was remarkable about this initiative was that the initiative committee organized literally hundreds of local organizing committees throughout Switzerland, and more than 10,000 volunteers actively took part in local campaigning – handing out flyers, being present at local markets on the weekends, distributing banners and encouraging people to hang up orange flags in support of the initiative. There has never been such popular mobilization for a federal initiative in the history of this country.”

“Also remarkable was that a large coalition of NGOs, church organizations, prominent personalities and even political parties supported it. One very famous centrist politician  – Dick Marty – was the figurehead of the campaign, and numerous prominent figures from all parties supported it publicly. The initiative cut across simple party lines in new ways, and that was a pleasure to see.”

Hertz said that the business lobby groups against the initiative “were unusually virulent and surprisingly unprofessional, a fact that shocked many centrist people into voting for it.” 

The business lobbyists “spread essentially three misleading rumors or lies — that the initiative targeted small and medium enterprises as well as multinationals, that the initiative reversed the burden of proof to the detriment of the defendants, and that defendants would be presumed guilty until proven innocent.” 

“This last one really shocked most of the lawyers in the country, as it was a matter of civil law, not criminal law, and had nothing to do with guilt or innocence.”

“More generally, the lobbyists seemed determined to use ‘fake news’ tactics, learned no doubt from watching how successful they are in the U.S. Prominent business people went on television and the radio and spread these misleading rumors knowing full well they were misleading. Even the federal counselor Karin Keller-Sutter was caught in this kind of half-truth zone, something Swiss citizens are not used to and don’t like.”

Hertz said that it was predicted that the initiative would go down at the canton level.

“Even though the initiative didn’t pass, the Federal Council and the Parliament will be obliged to take the popular majority into account in their future actions, so we can expect that things will not stop here,” Hertz said. “Also, this is a signal to the EU and to Germany, both of which are preparing similar laws these days. Most people expect that some form of hard law regulation will be applied to European based corporations in the next few years, so all that Switzerland did is miss out on an occasion to look good.” 

“But the anti-regulation tradition is deeply ingrained in business circles here, and they could just not accept that their ‘liberty’ would be curtailed,” Hertz said.

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