Human Rights Report shows we’re stronger together

At the end of February, ABN AMRO published its second Human Rights Report, which documents the bank’s efforts over the past two years in its capacity as a provider of banking services, an employer, a lender and an investment services provider. Environmental, Social & Ethical Risk Advisor Ruben Zandvliet says the report clearly shows how the bank is effectively translating theory into practice.

The 2016 report focused on how the bank was shaping its human rights policy, while the latest edition showcases the bank’s efforts to ensure that human rights are respected. Ruben says these efforts are numerous and far-reaching: “Human rights go beyond the public debate about palm oil or the appalling working conditions in sweatshops in Asia. After all, flagrant human rights violations occur close to home, too. The report is helping to raise awareness among the general public and even the bank’s own staff of human rights violations and the risks these involve.”

Joining forces for greater impact

The high turnout for the internal knowledge session Fifty Shades of Green is a good indicator that this particular issue resonates with staff. “We want people to realise that human rights concern us all, but we also think the learning effect is important,” says Ruben. “At the end of the day, we want each and every employee to stop and think about how they can contribute in their role or position at the bank. That’s why we’re encouraging everyone to learn more about the information in the report. The more people involved, the better we can join forces so that our human rights activities will ultimately reinforce one another and make an even greater impact. And joining forces – even with stakeholders outside the bank – will be crucial if we want to make great strides.”

Indeed, the report identifies a range of external stakeholders ABN AMRO is working with, including business clients, NGOs, trade unions, universities, government authorities and other banks. “You can’t change the world by yourself,” admits Ruben, “so it’s vital that we team up with others. For example, we’re currently in talks with several stakeholders about a number of smaller-scale NGOs operating in high-risk countries. These organisations do excellent work, often operating in crisis areas, and would certainly benefit from sufficient financial resources on the ground. The problem is that the risk policy pursued by banks makes this impossible, so these charities really get the short end of the stick – not to mention all the people who depend on their aid. This problem bears on our role as a service provider, and we need to do something about it.”

Climate change and human rights

The report also highlights the gross human rights violations often committed when ships are dismantled, another of the bank’s focus points. “In our role as a lender, we’ve developed the Responsible Ship Recycling Standards together with a number of other banks. These standards are intended to dissuade shipowners from allowing their end-of-life vessels to be dismantled in appalling conditions.” New problems regularly come to light as well. “Sometimes when one problem is solved, it creates a negative impact somewhere else,” explains Ruben. “We see this frequently when it comes to the environment, for instance. More and more electric cars are being manufactured, which is a good thing, but the extraction of cobalt alone, which is needed to make the batteries that power these cars, often results in such human violations as child labour in places like Congo. The construction of water dams or wind farms to generate renewable energy also poses a risk of human rights violations, since these projects often result in land rights abuses.”

Human Rights Report as a management tool

The bank feels it’s important to be transparent about its activities. Ruben says, “ABN AMRO has maintained a strong focus on human rights since 2011. However, the Human Rights Report is more than just the bank patting itself on the back – it also examines a number of dilemmas and obstacles. Plus the report functions as a useful management tool, allowing us to monitor our operations and plan future initiatives. Judging from the vulnerable client groups listed in the section covering our role as a service provider, we’re obviously doing a lot. But these are multiple separate initiatives. There are certain groups we still need to home in on. By consolidating our efforts, we’re sure to make even more progress. No matter how satisfying it is to make a positive impact, our work is never really done. That’s just how it goes with human rights.”

The bank is also working to improve its due diligence. “The founder of TIMBY, which stands for This Is My Backyard, spoke at our last human rights conference. They’ve developed a simple app to give individuals in vulnerable areas a voice. The app lets users post reviews of their living or working conditions. The success of the app will, of course, depend on whether it attracts enough users. We hope our clients will make use of TIMBY and other innovations like it. Companies with offices in unstable regions and underdeveloped countries would do well to monitor the local situation closely so they can quickly intervene in the event of human rights violations. After all, any company committed to sustainability doesn’t want to risk being associated with these types of practices.”

Ruben says it’s impossible to pay too much attention to human rights. “The day the report was published, our project to combat human trafficking made the eight o’clock news here in the Netherlands. For me, this type of positive media coverage affirms my belief that it’s imperative that we continue to take seriously our own influence when it comes to human rights. In the coming months, we plan to focus even more on embedding our human rights programme in the organisation. We’ll also be thinking carefully about how to minimise any negative impact on human rights we have and bolster the positive impact we’re making. Collaboration – not just internally across the bank, but also outside it – remains key.”

More information

The report is available online. Here you’ll also find the bank’s past publications on human rights. To request a printed version of the report, please send an email to humanrights@nl.abnamro.com.