Mandatory human rights due diligence: developments in Europe

Campaigners in France and Switzerland are aiming to improve corporate accountability by changing laws to require companies to conduct mandatory human rights due diligence throughout their operations. Below we report on a couple of prominent cases.

 

French bill on parent company liability

French campaigners were celebrating on 31 March 2015 when the French National Assembly endorsed a draft law which will require the largest French multinationals to put in place a due diligence plan to prevent harm to human rights and the environment. Companies which fail to produce such a plan can be required to do so by a judge and fined for non-compliance.

The bill was significantly weakened during the parliamentary process following opposition from business. A provision to reverse the burden of proof in international corporate accountability cases, requiring the company concerned to prove that it was not in control of the activities of its subsidiaries and subcontractors was removed from the final text and the law will apply to only companies employing more than 5000 people in France or 10,000 globally.

Nevertheless, campaigners hope that the new legislation will make it easier for lawyers representing people harmed by the international activities of French companies to show that the French parent or purchasing company is responsible for the activities of its subsidiaries and for harms in its supply chain. This has proved very difficult to date, in large part due to restrictive rules in France on access to evidence.

The bill will go to a final vote in the French Senate later this year.

 

Swiss ‘Responsible Business Initiative’

In a related development the Swiss Coalition for Corporate Justice has launched a Responsible Business Initiative, a movement to enshrine human rights and environmental due diligence into Swiss law.

The campaign is calling for an amendment to the Swiss Constitution to mandate the government to put in place measures to strengthen respect for human rights and the environment through business.

The new law would require Swiss multinationals to carry out appropriate due diligence, identifying real and potential impacts the environment and on internationally recognized human rights; taking  appropriate measures to prevent the violation of internationally recognized human rights and international environmental standards;  ceasing existing violations; and accounting for actions taken.

The mandatory due diligence requirements would be enforced with an extension to civil liability, enabling people adversely impacted by Swiss companies’ international activities to bring damages claims in Switzerland.

The campaign aims to collect 100,000 signatures over the next 18 months in support of the proposed amendment to the Swiss constitution. This would pave the way for the initiative to be taken up by the Swiss government and put to a national referendum.