How to improve human rights by sharing knowledge

ABN AMRO's unique approach to improving human rights is attracting international attention. By sharing knowledge, and learning from criticism, the bank hopes to make the world a better place.

“I’m happy to talk about the strides ABN AMRO is making in terms of human rights, but also about the areas where we can still improve. Transparency about our human rights policy is important,” says Maria Anne van Dijk, Head of Environmental Social & Ethical Risk & Policy at ABN AMRO, who travels the world to talk about the bank’s commitment to promoting human rights. Her engagements in recent months have taken her to Stockholm, London and New York where she spoke at the University of the United Nations, took part in a discussion panel on sustainable clothing with the retail chain H&M and attended an event for sustainable investors. Van Dijk isn’t surprised there’s so much interest in the bank’s experience and expertise. She says, “Everyone thinks it’s important to respect human rights. It turns out it’s not always easy, though. Companies and governments are looking for solutions to similar issues. And they can benefit from the bank’s experience in preventing things like labour exploitation and discrimination.”

The wrong employment agencies

ABN AMRO is actively committed to properly implementing its human rights policy. “And that’s an absolute necessity,” says van Dijk. “In this day and age, it’s simply not enough for businesses to pay lip service to human rights. They have to know what the current issues are and show what they’re doing to tackle them.” Last year, for example, the bank looked at how its human rights policy impacts on clients, staff and others in their everyday lives, an initiative that resulted in the “Human Rights Report 2016”. Van Dijk says she’s eager to share those experiences with others – both the success stories and the dilemmas. “The partnerships ABN AMRO has forged are making a big impression throughout the world. We’ve learned that it’s impossible to prevent labour exploitation on our own. That’s why we work together with law enforcement, government authorities and other banks. But we also organise presentations for relationship managers in which law enforcement officers talk about labour exploitation indicators, for instance. The bank, in turn, shares that knowledge with its clients, such as businesses which may have unintentionally enlisted the wrong type of employment agency.”

Sector approach

Examples like these are of great interest to international banks and companies. “This type of collaboration is a typically Dutch phenomenon,” explains van Dijk. ABN AMRO’s sector approach also has a certain appeal. “In sectors with a high risk of labour exploitation and child labour, we map out the sector and contact various players in the chain. Examples include the cocoa, copper and diamond trades. We also look at which parties we do finance in the diamond sector, for instance, and how we can exert a positive influence on human rights. Building our knowledge this way enables us to come up with solutions together with all the players in a given sector.” 


Van Dijk is keen to highlight human rights violations close to home, too. “Discrimination is everywhere, and human trafficking isn’t just an issue in distant countries, the shrimp fishing sector or the clothing industry,” she explains. “Scams and fraudulent schemes exist here in the Netherlands, too – like when workers are forced to pay higher rents for housing.” The bank identifies areas in which human rights are at stake and opens a dialogue with clients about improvements. If necessary, though, financing is not authorised, or the relationship is terminated altogether. After all, there are limits. “If a company that violates human rights refuses to change or simply denies there’s a problem, we have to draw the line.”

In addition to sharing knowledge, the bank wants to learn from the experience of others. In her presentations, van Dijk talks openly about the dilemmas the bank faces, such as the discussion on the right to privacy or discrimination. She says, “I address the fact that we don’t always get it right ourselves – for instance, when a sex worker or a refugee with residence status is wrongfully denied a bank account simply because an employee wasn’t properly informed and thought it best to play it safe.” Van Dijk says such instances show how important it is to stay alert: “It’s a matter of being aware of the negative impact you as a company could have on people’s human rights. Only once you know where the problem areas are can you work to find a solution.”