ABN AMRO gives human rights defenders a platform

Human rights are under threat in many countries around the world. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press and trade union rights are increasingly curtailed. According to estimates compiled by CIVICUS, only four per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where civic freedoms are respected. On 24 June, ABN AMRO invited a number of companies, NGOs, government representatives, academics and frontline human rights defenders to discuss the role of the business community in improving the situation.

Civic freedoms like the right to demonstrate are important, since they empower people to speak out against injustice. Governments and companies don’t always welcome such dissent, however. For example, trade unionists were arrested in Cambodia after staging protests to demand higher minimum wages in 2014. A major opposition party was banned there in 2017. An NGO was denied visas for Thailand after publishing a report which was critical about the local food sector. In other countries, though, the situation is far more dire. According to figures from the NGO Front Line Defenders, 321 human rights defenders were murdered last year.

A priority for the bank and its clients

Protecting human rights defenders and civic freedoms is an important issue at ABN AMRO. “Take freedom of speech, for instance,” says Maria Anne van Dijk, who is leading ABN AMRO’s human rights programme. “Anyone who feels it’s important to speak out against abuses and injustices must be given the chance – the right – to do so.” The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which ABN AMRO has endorsed, state that protecting human rights primarily is the responsibility of governments. A company should not be allowed to infringe on those rights – by bringing a lawsuit for defamation against someone who criticises it, for example. Companies, too, must respect human rights. Maria Anne says, “That’s why we screen our clients on the basis of stakeholder management criteria and on the options available for holding the company to account. We also encourage them to engage in dialogue with individuals who might be negatively impacted by their business activities like factory workers who may not be earning a living wage or people living near a new mine who may be forced to leave their homes. Dialogue with human rights defenders is also the key focus of our conference.”

Standing up for LGBTI+ rights

ABN AMRO organised the conference to raise awareness and to find solutions to which the bank and its clients can contribute. Various human rights defenders spoke about the work they do, including 28-year-old Vincent, from the Kenyan city of Mombasa. Vincent works to defend the rights of sexual minorities in Kenya, fighting for fair treatment by the police, equal access to healthcare and job opportunities. His activism draws a lot of what he calls “hateful criticism”. He says, “I was attending a legal awareness forum, and some lawyers told me I had no business being there. As someone who identifies as ‘queer’, I didn’t belong there. I often get called names in the street. And people I know get beaten up.”

Since Vincent started working as an activist ten years ago, the situation has improved slightly for the LGBTI+ community in Kenya. “Ten years ago, most of the LGBTI+ community members would not report a crime because they were afraid of being victimized by the police,” he says. “We were also denied access to some of the hospitals. We’ve invested heavily in raising awareness among government representatives, lawyers and police officers. Now we actually have access to basic services – in theory, at least. Obviously, there’s still so much more that needs to be done.”

Consequences for the business community

Although many companies have clear policies supporting LGBTI+ rights, they don’t always implement them worldwide. “Some companies operating internationally choose the ‘when in Rome’ approach, and blindly follow local laws and regulations, even if they result in discrimination,” explains Maria Anne. “Companies can choose to create a safe space for LGBTI+ people – at least within their own walls. And in certain cases, it’s possible that companies actively take a stand and call for change.” One recent example is a court case brought in Hong Kong. A number of financial institutions, including ABN AMRO, spoke out in support of a lesbian couple who were refused immigration status which heterosexual couples are granted as a matter of course.

Matchmaker

In his role as an activist, Vincent is supported by the Shelter City programme of the international human rights organisation Justice and Peace, a client of ABN AMRO Institutions & Charities. Maria Anne says, “I think it’s fantastic that the bank not only provides financial services to human rights organisations, but also actively supports them in their mission. Events like our conference allow us to act as a matchmaker between business players and NGOs.”

The conference, entitled 'Civic Freedom and Human Rights Defenders: What Is the Role of Business?', was organised in collaboration with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) to focus on their joint report, 'Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders'. The report examines the role that companies can play, providing practical examples in various countries and sectors. The document is available for download here.