faculty & experts
07 December 2020

Human Rights Begin at Home

“Human rights begin at home”. This cliché often pops up in speeches celebrating Human Rights Day around the 10th of December. In fact the original speech by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1958 started out: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home”. She went on to point to the individual’s neighbourhood, school, college, factory, farm or office.  Today I would add the actual home. Domestic violence is a human rights issue. The police can no longer pass on by claiming that they do not interfere in “domestics”. 

Similarly, in international affairs, human rights are no longer considered exclusively a question of domestic affairs. The protection of human rights has been a legitimate concern of all states since the 1990s. Closer to home, it is now of increasing concern to ordinary people. The popular initiatives that were recently launched in Switzerland have demonstrated a remarkable enthusiasm to protect human rights abroad even in the face of the opposition of the federal government and a number of elected politicians. The key point here is that those supporting the initiatives wanted Swiss companies and Swiss investors to think about their impact on vulnerable people outside Switzerland.     

The first would have allowed for the victims of human rights violations or environmental damage to sue Swiss companies in the Swiss courts for failing to respect internationally recognised human rights and international environmental standards abroad. Such companies would have been obliged to ensure that these rights and standards were also respected by the companies they control. Although the initiative attracted 50.7% of the vote, it did not win the majority of the cantons and so it ultimately failed.      

The second would have prohibited the financing of producers of war material by the Swiss National Bank as well as by investment and pension funds. Producers of war material would have been defined as manufacturers where more than 5% of the annual turnover comes from the production of war material. This failed with 57% of the population voting against.     

Others will be poring over the figures and the breakdown, there is plenty to ponder. There are divisions across geography, rural/urban, young and old. The polls also suggest that in both cases the majority of women voted in favour of the initiatives. What I would like to stress here is that perhaps we should not really consider these initiatives to have failed. It is now far more likely that consumers will inquire into to the record of the companies they choose to buy from. And those thinking of investing will surely now be considering more options for their pensions. Since I left Amnesty International I was given a choice as to whether my pension money should be ethically invested or remain with the regular fund. I am guessing many of us chose the ethical fund.     

Human rights begin at home.