Banks hide links to abuses behind client confidentiality

Some of the world’s biggest banks are routinely hiding behind client confidentiality to conceal investments in companies and projects that infringe human and environmental rights.

BankTrack has published an analysis of five years of correspondence with 31 international banks finding that in nearly half of all responses (70 of 150), banks said they could not comment on whether they had a relationship with a particular customer or project. Half of those responses cited client confidentiality as the reason.

The analysis in the report, We are unable to comment on specific clients…, HSBC was the bank found most often to cite client confidentiality as an obstacle to disclosing its clients. The research finds that banks based in the UK, Canada and Asia are the least likely to disclose their clients, with those in mainland Europe the most transparent. Transparency varies significantly across banks in both the US and Australia.

“Banks routinely claim that they are prevented from disclosing their finance for these companies, but we’ve found that this is a choice banks make. It doesn’t have to be this way. Banks can – and do – write the right to disclose into their contracts when it suits their interests. They must do so when it comes to basic human rights,” said Johan Frijns, director at BankTrack.

The findings of the report point to the huge importance of transparency commitments being part and parcel of every sustainability commitment. The ongoing revision of the Equator Principles, a risk management framework adopted by financial institutions to assess and manage environmental and social risk, and UN’s Principles for Responsible Banking, which are currently being drafted, both can provide an opportunity for the banking sector to strengthen such commitments.

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