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On Wednesday, 18 December 2019, the Council of States of the Swiss Parliament held a much anticipated vote on a counter-proposal to the Responsible Business Initiative (RBI).
The RBI was launched in 2015. If adopted, the key elements that it would introduce are:
Following a series of debates and back-and-forth between the lower and upper houses of Parliament, there were ultimately two main parliamentary counter-proposals to the RBI on the table:
The second counter-proposal came about following a statement issued by the Swiss Government in August 2019 that, while it was opposed to the introduction of a general mandatory due diligence requirement and a liability provision, it supported the introduction of a non-financial reporting requirement in line with regulations that are in place in the EU.
The Council of States adopted the second counter-proposal.
The matter will now go back to the National Council, which could (i) accept the second counter-proposal or (ii) propose further changes. If further changes are proposed, the houses would need to agree on a final version of the counter-proposal in the next parliamentary sessions. The RBI Committee has indicated that, if the second counter-proposal is adopted by Parliament in its current form, the initiative would not be withdrawn and would therefore go to the popular vote – which would most likely take place in the autumn of next year.
There is a fair degree of uncertainty as to the outcome of the parliamentary process and of a possible popular vote. With the adoption of the second counter-proposal, the prospect of a "hard" liability provision for breaches of environmental and human rights standards has lost some traction, but can by no means yet be discounted. Consequently, it is unclear what duties and standards will eventually apply to Swiss companies.
In any event, Swiss companies that operate in a complex and multinational context should seek guidance as to the rules and standards that might apply, both in Switzerland and abroad, and should not underestimate the risk of exposure in case of non-compliance.
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