The Dutch Banking Sector Agreement on Human Rights: Changing the Paradigm from ‘Opportunity to Affect’ to ‘Responsibility to Respect’ – By Benjamin Thompson

Editor’s note: Benjamin Thompson is a PhD candidate in business and human rights at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. His PhD research deals with the effects of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights' endorsement of operational level, non-judicial grievance mechanisms and their role in improving access to remedy. He recently published an article for Utrecht Law Review’s Special Issue on Accountability of Multinational Corporations for Human Rights Abuses which discussed the roles the new Dutch multistakeholder initiative with the Dutch banking sector might play in improving banks’ performance with respect to human rights.

In November of last year the Asser Institute offered me the opportunity to take part in a roundtable on the Dutch Banking Sector Agreement (DBA), as part of their Doing Business Right Project. Signed in December 2017, the DBA is a collaboration between the banking sector, the government, trade unions and civil society organisations (CSOs), all based within the Netherlands: the first of its kind. It focuses on banks’ responsibility to respect human rights, as stipulated in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD Guidelines), within their corporate lending and project finance activities. The DBA has been something of a hot topic in business and human rights circles. However, it has not yet published a public monitoring report, making any evaluation of its performance at this stage difficult. During the roundtable, we discussed the role of the DBA as a potential means to improve the practices of Dutch banks with respect to human rights. A key challenge identified from this discussion, as reported here, was the various ‘interpretive ambiguities inherent in the UNGPs’. A key conclusion was that ‘further dialogue is required... to ascertain what conduct on the part of the banks is consistent with international obligations’.

This is not a unique conclusion to arise from multistakeholder discussions on banks and human rights; the discussion often focuses on what financial institutions are required to do to meet their responsibility to respect human rights under the UNGPs. So much so that questions concerning implementation or evaluation are often left by the wayside. As a result, when presenting my research on the DBA for the Utrecht Centre of Accountability and Liability Law’s Conference on ‘Accountability and International Business Operations’, published here, I decided to focus on how the DBA had responded to those key points of friction where there is the greatest disagreement between how different stakeholders conceive banks’ human rights responsibilities. This blog post seeks to build on this previous entry, hopefully without too much repetition. More...