Human Rights Conference: innovations in due diligence

As a lender, it’s important that the bank knows what impact or risk a given loan will have in terms of human rights. But that depends on sufficient and reliable information, which isn’t always available. At the fifth ABN AMRO Human Rights Conference, a range of experts including innovators, data providers, investors and ESG professionals discussed this very issue.

Investment activities and business operations require due diligence in many areas, including human rights. Financial institutions like ABN AMRO have to be able to assess whether the financing they provide is human rights-proof. In a complex international context, that’s often easier said than done. Not infrequently, there’s simply a lack of insight into the actual situation on the ground.

Conference

This fact doesn’t discharge banks from their obligation to investigate applicants to get a better picture of local circumstances in areas where financing necessitates the bank’s involvement. Speaking about this issue, Ruben Zandvliet, an adviser on Environmental, Social & Ethical Risk at ABN AMRO, said at ABN AMRO’s fifth International Human Rights Conference, “Taking responsibility for human rights starts with knowing what’s happening on the ground and listening to people who are affected by our actions. This is why we need to find ways to make better use of all the publicly available information out there. We also need to identify sources we have yet to tap.”

In 2019, options for carrying out thorough investigations will become more and more accessible, a fact confirmed by keynote speakers Nick Waters of Bellingcat and Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture. All the speakers agreed on one point: investing in a better world is possible only if we face one another honestly. Only three per cent of the world’s population lives in countries which fully respect human rights. In that light, the assessment of an investment in a particular company shouldn’t be limited to the bank asking for a few reports to review and then taking the company at its word.

If you want to be sure that you’re investing in a sound, sustainable and humane company, you’ll have to ascertain, at the very least, whether it well and truly does what it says it does. Are there absolutely no human rights violations? Are you really investing in a better world?

Social media

Carrying out careful due diligence takes a lot of time, especially if you leave no stone unturned, as Bellingcat did when it carried out its detailed investigation of 17 July 2014, the day that flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down while flying over Ukraine. It can take a whole year to make a full analysis of a single day. Nick Waters admits: “It’s not a simple matter, but in this modern age, it is possible. With all the information posted on social media alone, investors can verify that a fashion company doesn’t have its seamstresses working in cramped or life-threatening conditions, for example.”

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous in nearly every part of the world. An abuse can be exposed with a single upload. And since smartphones and social media have become so popular, the supply of open-source information has also grown exponentially. Social media users post anything they find strange, shocking or abnormal to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or some local version of these platforms to share that information with their friends. News and media sources are now suddenly in the hands of the general public.

Fragmentary information

“Facebook tracks our every move, but it also provides us with important information,” says Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture. Weizman analyses open-source information. He tells how a few innocent photos on Facebook taken by US marines on a base in Cameroon helped identify which buildings they had access to. After the photos were compared with floor plans in the public domain, they showed that, despite official claims to the contrary, the soldiers had access to areas where acts of torture were taking place, indicating they were in all probability aware of them.

Weizman cites this particular example because it illustrates how fragmentary information can lead to surprising and unexpected revelations. Fragmentary information also feeds Waters’s citizen journalism platform Bellingcat, which is often the first to refute “official” news reports. Even before the official investigative committee reported that Russia was behind the downing of MH17, Bellingcat had come out with the facts after having made a meticulous comparison of Facebook photos with Google Earth images and online sound clips.

Zooming in on details in photos and identifying and linking up points of reference is a very time-consuming process, but Waters says it’s definitely worth it: “Anyone can make an allegation. But when proof is needed, you have to find out the facts. Only then are you in a position to make an accusation. This also sends a clear warning – they know we can uncover the facts.”

A moral obligation

A panel discussion was also held during the conference featuring various stakeholders devoted to the professionalisation of human rights due diligence: TIMBY, Ulula, TMP Systems and Impactt. A growing number of companies, institutions and NGOs are focusing on data collection, analyses, fact-finding and impact studies to help protect human rights. During the discussion, conference participants asked one another how financial institutions, including banks, can do more to improve their qualitative and quantitative research. How do you ensure a viable process is in place in which hard figures and the experiences of real people enable an objective assessment to be made of risk and impact?

One of the main takeaways was that any investor should, by definition, be suspicious. Speaking on behalf of ABN AMRO, Maria Anne van Dijk, Global Head of Environmental, Social & Ethical Risk & Policy, summarised the message as follows: “Verify the results of your own assessment, ask the right questions and maintain a healthy degree of scepticism.” Indeed, according to Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture, “The slightest doubt must be sufficient reason to investigate. Human rights due diligence is a moral obligation – one which anyone wishing to invest in the world of tomorrow must meet.”

About ABN AMRO’s International Human Rights Conference

Each year, ABN AMRO organises the Human Rights Conference for its corporate contacts to raise awareness of the subject and the bank’s policy. The fifth annual conference was held on 10 December 2018, International Human Rights Day.

The event is just one of the ways in which ABN AMRO is implementing its sustainability policy. With over 5 million retail clients and 400,000 corporate clients, the bank can have a significant impact on making today’s world better tomorrow by giving advice on, and providing insight into, how investments have a positive or negative effect on social issues like human rights.

Keynote speakers at the conference were Nick Waters of Bellingcat and Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture. The founders of TIMBY, Ulula, TMP Systems and Impactt participated in the interactive sessions.

Watch a short video about ABN AMRO’s fifth International Human Rights Conference