The Swiss Catholic and Reformed Churches have backed a citizens’ push to punish businesses that inflict harm on people and the environment.

– “Business needs human rights”

Together with leaders of the Swiss Reformed Church, the Swiss Bishops published October 8 a statement entitled “Business needs human rights”, in which they offer a series of theological and ethical reflections to guide citizens ahead of a vote on a new popular Corporate Responsibility Initiative (KVI) November 29.

In that document, the leaders of the Swiss Churches say they share the concerns of the promoters of the petition, which seeks to hold corporations based in Switzerland accountable for any harm they cause to people and nature.

While the Christian representatives leave it to the consciences of citizens to decide how they will vote, they argue from “two central concerns of the biblical message” – “charity and the preservation of creation” – to hold that the KVI offers a promising way to combat human rights violations committed especially against the poorest and most defenceless.

– “He who has less in life should have more in the law”

In their statement, the Swiss Bishops and Reformed leaders observe that the KVI tackles “the old question of the justice that people who have no power and possibilities to claim or fight for it can rely on”.

The Christian representatives acknowledge that the KVI “makes an urgent appeal” to the Swiss government and to the international community “to stand up more decisively and uncompromisingly for the validity and observance of human rights in every place in the world”.

That is a call entirely consistent with the Christian tradition, the Church leaders say, a key principle of which was formulated as long ago as 1967 by the World Council of Churches: “He who has less in life should have more in the law”.

– “No company should be able to disregard or circumvent human rights to gain profit or competitive advantages”

Pointing out that the KVI calls for “legally-binding corporate obligations that can be monitored and sanctioned”, the Swiss Christian leaders insist that such legally-enforceable obligations “should apply not only in Switzerland, but in every country where Swiss companies or their subsidiaries are active”.

Recalling that human rights violations do not depend on where they happen, but on who they happen to, the Catholic Bishops and Reformed leaders insist that the binding “protective shield” of human rights “must not be made a matter of negotiation in the global marketplace and must not be set off against economic arguments of competitiveness and security of location”.

“Companies that base their business practices on the lack of implementation of human rights or the inadequate control of human rights violations gain an economic advantage at the expense of the fundamental protection and personal rights of the people concerned”, the leaders of the Swiss Churches denounce.

They add that currently “existing guidelines on corporate social responsibility are powerless” against human rights violations “because companies do not have to fear any consequences” from them.

Criticising those enterprises that “speculate” and “calculate” with human rights, the Swiss Christian heads observe that greater protection for human rights is not even a matter “of weighing up ethical goods” as if “economic freedoms and human rights protection [were] competing interests on the same level”.

“Human rights also protect the freedom of the market, especially of those market agents who cannot rely on their economic power due to their limited resources”, the Bishops and Evangelical leaders claim.

They argue that “those who want a free global economy cannot do without the most extensive legal protection possible for economic activity and, even more so, for market agents”.

The Swiss Bishops and Reformed leaders close their statement claiming that “binding human rights protection based on the rule of law benefits not only individuals but also companies themselves”.

“For this reason, a commitment to human rights which can be checked and sanctioned,… is in the interest of all”, they maintain.

“No company should be able to disregard or circumvent human rights or to gain profit or competitive advantages” from that contempt, the leaders of the Swiss Churches conclude.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.