Thun Group of Banks criticised for misguided interpretation of UN Guiding Principles.

At the beginning of this year, the informal Thun banking group, consisting of UBS, Credit Suisse, Barclays, BBVA, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, ING, RBS, Standard Chartered, UniCredit and JP Morgan, published a position paper on the understanding and scope of Article 13 of the UN -Leitprinzipien.

In this respect, the banking groups largely excluded their responsibility for protecting human rights (( .

The UN Guiding Principles Article 13 (b) state that:

“Responsibility to respect human rights requires that business enterprises: Seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”

According to the Thun Group, banks can neither cause human rights violations nor contribute to these if they are attributable to customer activity. In this way, the institutions dispose of their responsibility and with it any obligation to make reparations to victims (( . There is, however, no doubt that when banks finance human rights violations they are participating and making these violations possible in the longer term. For example the case of construction of the Ilisu dam in Turkey, where large groups of persons were relocated, and the construction aggravated water conflicts. Such undertakings are only made possible by lenders and investors and for which the environmental and social effects are clearly understood in advance ((

Accordingly, the former UN Secretary-General, UN Special Rapporteur and author of the UN Guiding Principles, John Ruggie reacted indignantly to the attempt by the banks to interpret the principles at will. In a letter to UBS he wrote “The UNO guiding principles are not a kind of Rorschach test, for everyone to interpret however they like.” ((

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), on 13 June 2017, took a position on the banking sector as part of the UN Guiding Principles in response to the international non-governmental organization BankTrack. The interpretation of the Thun Group, as a bank in principle not to fall under the UN guiding principles because they neither “cause” nor contribute to  “human rights violations”, was rejected (( .
_of_the_UN_Guiding_Principles_in_the_banking_sector.pdf)). The OHCHR writes:

“The UNGPs apply to all business enterprises, including commercial banks and other entities in the financial sector, regardless of size, sector, operational context, ownership and structure. Equally, they apply to any company or commercial vehicle from any other sector

In June of this year, the Thun Bank met with government representatives, UN and OECD experts, and non-governmental organizations to discuss the paper presented ((Baer, Mark (2017): „UNO-Spitzenmann greift Schweizer Banken an“. Erschienen in SonntagsZeitung am 18. Juni 2017)). The ongoing criticism has had an impact. As reported by representatives of the NGO PublicEye, the financial institutions made their statements more relevant (( . A written statement from the Thun Group, in which they commit themselves to their human rights responsibilities and propose strategies for the future implementation of the UN Guiding Principles in their respective countries, would also be desirable.

A very short video explanation of the Thun group current discussions is available here.