Switzerland’s disappointing Action Plan

Over 5 years after the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Switzerland finally published its implementation strategy. Although the National Action Plan (NAP)[1] recognizes the challenges at hand, only six new measures are foreseen.

The National Action Plan aims to implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which were adopted unanimously by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011. This is in response to a request from Swiss parliament (National Council) in 2012 calling for a Ruggie strategy for Switzerland. The publication of the NAP has since been postponed several times.

Published today, the Swiss NAP recognizes that the UNGPs lay the foundation for regulating business from a human rights perspective. The structure of the text carefully follows the recommendations set forth by the UN Working Group. The Federal Council also notes that companies domiciled and/or active in Switzerland must duly fulfill their responsibilities in the field of human rights. Another positive aspect is the Federal Council’s understanding of the implementation of the Guiding Principles as a continuous process.

However, the content of the NAP is disappointing. From the outset, the text explicitly excludes any new binding measures. Out of the 50 political instruments listed, 37 pertain to activities already carried out by the Confederation. Seven were already put forward by Federal Council in its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) position, adopted in April 2015. The six new measures are limited to marketing (with, for instance, the creation of a Swiss Business and Human Rights Champion prize) and an improved application of existing FDFA instruments (such as the training of embassy staff).

While many NGOs were actively involved in the consultations around the NAP’s drafting, almost none of the proposals put forward by civil society were included in the final text. The NAP does not provide for any binding instrument such as mandatory due diligence for multinationals. And the strategy is not based on a gap-analysis to identify loopholes in Swiss law and practice. Additionally, the frequency at which the NAP is to be revised, i.e. every four years, is too long given the rapidly evolving international context of business and human rights.

The published version of the NAP represents a step backwards compared to the draft submitted for consultation in June of this year. Whereas mandatory human rights due diligence for state-owned enterprises was in the prior version, it is absent in the final NAP. The current text merely requires an inventory of CSR activities of those enterprises.

The Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice takes notice of the Federal Council’s reluctance to follow, yet alone anticipate, international developments on business and human rights. It regrets such a conservative stance, which proved not too long ago to be harmful to Switzerland, for instance in the banking secrecy field. The initiative requiring multinationals to respect human rights is an opportunity to protect Switzerland’s reputation.