Human rights issues are much closer to home than we think

Can a bank prevent the violation of human rights? Yes, to a much greater degree than done so far, says sustainable banker and corporate activist Maria Anne van Dijk. ABN AMRO is organising its second International Human Rights Conference on 9 December.

"Themes like privacy and equality remind us that human rights issues are much closer to home than we think"

Maria Anne van Dijk, Head of Environmental Social & Ethical Risk & Policy

Purchasing chain

Banking is not limited to balance sheets and credit ratings. The bank manages more than just financial flows, Van Dijk states. ‘You can no longer say: we only take care of the financial flows. Especially if your clients operate or purchase all over the world. Their purchasing chain could involve exploitation, child labour or slavery. You don't want to be financing such practices.’

ABN AMRO is the first bank in the world to report according to the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework, which is aligned to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Van Dijk explains that for now, this is the best proof that ABN AMRO's actions and reporting are in line with human rights as established by the UN. ‘ABN AMRO is an early adopter, like H&M and Unilever. I know, it looks a lot like just a heap of words on paper, but it is very concrete. It means that at all times, we need to know what our clients are doing.’


Van Dijk explains: ‘If a client imports goods from Bangladesh or India, and has sustainability policies in place, you could say: great, that is sorted then. But to me that is not enough. We have to know more about the process. What occupational health and safety standards do they have? How do they check those? You have to keep a close eye on what is going on and gather information. Based on the industry, the country, and the way they have organised the process, we rank our clients as low, medium, or high risk. It gives us a proper insight into the state of our client portfolios, and how many pioneers and stragglers we have.’

If a client does not meet the requirements, there will be consequences, Van Dijk continues. ‘What do you do? Ban them? Our policy is geared at giving the client an opportunity to improve. We enter a dialogue in which we also offer advice. Otherwise, they will switch to a bank that does give them that leeway. We tell them: within a certain timeframe, you have to get your house in order. We agree on an improvement plan and keep monitoring it. These clients have to keep up with the times. We choose engagement over exclusion, because we are convinced that we can maximise our influence that way.’

Close to home

According to Van Dijk, many people assume that human rights issues are far removed in the chain: child labour in the textile industry, slavery on cocoa plantations. ‘Human rights issues take place much closer to home than you think they do. How does ABN AMRO handle clients' personal data? How about employee rights, about pay gaps between men and women? Or opportunities for applicants with a migrant background? There are still many human rights issues in the Netherlands, ranging from privacy to equality. The same principle applies here: you have to investigate to get a grip on things.’
During the upcoming Human rights conference on 9 December, Van Dijk especially looks forward to the keynote speech by Kailash Satyarthi, a human rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. He launched the Global March against Child Labour, a worldwide coalition of NGOs and unions. ‘He is a fantastic speaker who knows what it takes to translate ideals into practice. I am very curious about the second half of the conference as well. We will talk about the role that ABN AMRO can or should play. Our own work will be the focus.’

In the next edition of this newsletter, ABN AMRO will cover the conference.

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