Partnering with human rights defenders

Human rights defenders are people or groups of people who work to promote human rights, often under difficult circumstances. In many countries violence and oppression are on the rise. Banks can play a key role in protecting the civic space that human rights defenders need to do their work.

The importance of human rights defenders for banks

ABN AMRO’s Human Rights Statement is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The UNGPs rest on three pillars: the state’s duty to protect human rights, companies’ responsibility to respect human rights, and the right to effective remedy for victims of human rights abuses. These pillars are mutually reinforcing. In order for companies to be able to play their role, it is crucial that human rights such as the freedom of expression, association and assembly, are protected.  

 “There are many reasons why banks should engage more with human rights defenders,” explains Maria Anne van Dijk, head of Environmental Social & Ethical Risk and Policy at ABN AMRO. Her team assesses whether the bank’s clients in high-risk sectors such as agriculture and mining are taking their responsibility to respect human rights seriously. “If states curb civil liberties, this could render effective human rights due diligence by banks more difficult. When assessing a client, we look at a range of issues. Are companies engaging with affected stakeholders, assessing their human rights risks, taking action and being transparent about the results? To answer these questions we rely on information in the public domain such as NGO reports and newspaper articles. But in many countries, the public domain is being eroded or is almost non-existent.”

Human rights defenders may be critical of a client of ABN AMRO. “The way in which companies deal with their critics is often a good litmus test for their human rights responsibility. At the very least, they should not inhibit the work of human rights defenders. When we do due diligence on potential clients, defamation lawsuits against NGOs, for example, are clear red flags.” ABN AMRO’s current Human Rights Statement does not mention human rights defenders. Van Dijk: “Our policies focus on the substance of human rights. The next step is to clarify what we expect from our clients when it comes to engaging with civil society.” ABN AMRO recently joined a network of international companies to exchange information and best practices. “This will help us to better understand how we can translate our commitment into concrete action.”

The possibilities for leverage go beyond the bank-client relationship. Last year, ABN AMRO and eleven other financial institutions tried to intervene in a court case in Hong Kong. The bank wanted to send a signal in support of a lesbian couple that was denied the same immigration status as same-sex couples. Although the court did not approve the intervention, the outcome of the case was successful. “ABN AMRO has a branch in Hong Kong. As an employer we want to respect LGBT rights, but our ability to do so often depends on the government. Speaking up publically is one way in which companies can protect or support civic space.”

The importance of banks for human rights defenders

Many clients of ABN AMRO MeesPierson’s Institutions & Charities department experience first-hand the effects of a shrinking civic space. Regulation of the financial sector often plays a pivotal role. “International payments may appear straightforward, but for civil society organisations this can be very challenging,” says Bart van Kreel, relationship manager at ABN AMRO MeesPierson. “The Netherlands has strict legislation on terrorism finance, which makes it difficult to transfer money to conflict areas. This affects clients of mine who do humanitarian work in these areas.” 

Van Kreel also points out that transparency requirements may jeopardise human rights defenders. Banks are required to note the name and address of the recipient when transferring money. “But sharing that information could be life-threatening when you are a journalist in Syria,” he explains. “Banks have to comply with laws and regulations, but we also have a responsibility towards people. When we see these unintended effects, we cannot just sit back, but have to discuss this with all relevant stakeholders, including the Ministry of Finance and other banks. I am proud that I can help my clients, not only as their relationship manager, but also as a partner.”

Sebastiaan van der Zwaan – Managing Director of Justice and Peace Netherlands

"We are all human rights defenders. Our mission is clear: to improve access to social, economic and environmental justice by providing protection for human rights defenders and supporting their work. Our Shelter City project offers human rights defenders who need a safe place to stay a temporary shelter in ten Dutch cities. For a period of three months, these human rights defenders can recharge their batteries to do the important work they do.

As a client of ABN AMRO, we are pleased that the bank acknowledges the importance of respecting human rights and of supporting the work of human rights defenders. By offering technical support for the Shelter City human rights defenders network, ABN AMRO can gain further expertise in effectively addressing human rights."

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