Netwerk Vlaanderen

Press Release, November 2005


Belgian bank groups invest in companies that abuse human rights

AXA, ING, Fortis, Dexia and KBC have invested more than US$ 8 billion (more than €6.6 billion) in companies that are involed in the violations of human rights. That is the conclusion of research from Netwerk Vlaanderen, the results of which are published today. The companies and projects that the banks invest in have been criticised due to practices such as support for dictatorial regimes, forced relocations of population, and forced labour.

The report from Netwerk Vlaanderen “Where are the borders? Research into the financial links between five bank groups and companies that abuse human rights”, reveals investments in fourteen controversial companies  and a number of large-scale infrastructure projects. Netwerk Vlaanderen researched the official investment policies of the banks, and puts this into contrast with the facts.

This research report forms part of the campaign “My Money. Clear Conscience?”. This campaign, run by Netwerk Vlaanderen, aims to point out to banks where their social responsibility lies. My Money. Clear Conscience? calls on the banks to end their controversial investments, and to make public which companies are financied with the money of their clients.


Support for dictatorships

The five researched banks invest a combined total of almost US$ 2.4 billion in shares of Total. Total currently has investments in a gas pipeline in Burma, a land that it ruled with an iron fist by a military junta. Total refuses to pay attention to the international call for disinvestment. The company uses Burmese soldiers, known for their extreme brutality, to clear and protect the route of the pipeline. This Total project ensures a substantial income for the military rulers of the country. The oppression of the local population is strengthened by the activities of Total.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic opposition and winner of the Nobel peace prize, has referred to Total as the greatest supporter of the military dictatorship in Burma.

However, the Belgian banks that were the subject of this research appear to have no problem with investing in this company.


Violations of the rights of workers

The five researched bank groups have invested a combined total of more than US$ 1.6 billion in Wal-Mart. This US distributon chain is widely known for its continued breaches of basic workers’ rights.
Wal-Mart has been condemned for breaching the child labour laws in its warehouses. In the United States there are still dozens of cases pending against the company for 'union-busting'. The management registers, threatens and illegally fires trade union activists. Trade unions are not welcomed by Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart has already been found guilty of ‘union busting’ on a number of occasions. Poor conditions are also routine in the subcontractors of Wal-Mart, which advertises itself using the slogan ‘Always Low Prices’.

Wal-Mart doesn't seem to take much notice of these criticisms. The company has taken hardly any action to improve these terrible working conditions. Wal-Mart continues to be far behind other companies in this respect. However, the five researched banks believe that investing in Wal-Mart is perfectly reasonable.


Human rights abuses related to infrastructure projects

KBC, Fortis, Dexia and ING are also heavily involed in large-scale projects that have been linked to human rights abuses.One example of this is the BTC pipeline, that runs through Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The project has been called into question because of the support for undemocratic regimes, the fueling of regional conflicts, the violation of human rights, and environmental damage.

Many communities protested against these practices, but the protests were heavily repressed in all three countries. The consultation with the effected communities left a lot to be desired. Those making their criticisms of the pipeline public were often the target of serious repression, arrest and intimidation by the authorities. This is not surprising given the human rights situation in each of the countries.
Despite these problems, banks including KBC, ING and Dexia see no problem in financing the BTC project. Multiple protests against their involvement in the BTC project have been ignored.


Towards a watertight human rights policy

The examples given above are just a glimpse of the practices that are revelaed in the Netwerk Vlaanderen report “Where are the borders?”. The following conclusion can be drawn from the findings of the report: The polices of AXA, Dexia, Fortis, ING and KBC offer no guarantees against investments in the violation of human rights.

Netwerk Vlaanderen asks that the bank groups investigate and put an end to their investments in companies that are accused of serious breaches of human rights.

Savers and investrs cannot judge the human rights profile of their bank group without clear information. Therefore, Netwerk Vlaanderen also demands that the banks make their human rights policies public, along with a list of the companies and governments in which they are investing.

The complete report goes into much more detail regarding these challenges for the bank world, and gives a number of concrete steps that can be taken to achieve a more watertight human rights policy.


End press release


Press spokesperson: Inez Louwagie, +32 (0)2 201 07 70 and +32 (0)498 68 29 40,

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Netwerk Vlaanderen campaigns for a positive use of money, and develops sustainable saving and investment products.


Netwerk Vlaanderen is a member of BankTrack, an international movement for sustainability in the financial sector,