RBS tries to defuse protests about ‘dirty’ investments

The protest sign projected onto the EICC
The protest sign projected onto the EICC

By Rob Edwards

The chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Sir Philip Hampton, is to meet environmental and human rights campaigners this week in an attempt to defuse escalating protests about the bank’s “dirty” investments.

The bank’s annual general meeting in Edinburgh on Wednesday has become the target for a wide range of protest groups. They accuse RBS of putting up to £10 billion of public money into fossil fuel and mining projects in Canada, India and elsewhere which wreck the environment and violate human rights.

RBS was bailed out for £45.5 billion by the UK government during the banking crisis and is now 84% owned by British taxpayers. It has argued in the past that it cannot be held responsible for all the actions of the companies in which it invests.

But by agreeing to meet campaign groups in Edinburgh after the AGM, Sir Philip may be signalling a new approach. “We are keen to listen to their perspective,” said an RBS spokeswoman.

“We recognise that a broad range of stakeholders have a very legitimate interest in the way that we conduct our business. Although we will not always agree with the many different opinions expressed, we welcome feedback and constructive engagement.”

One of those who will be meeting Hampton is Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, a Dene woman from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in northern Alberta. She works for the Rainforest Action Network and campaigns against plans to extract oil from the underground tar sands across her homelands.

“RBS is currently financing the largest and most destructive industrial project on the planet destroying my people, my community and my traditional lands,” she said.

“The bank should be adopting strong policies that respect free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities and ensures the protection of the environment and water. I hope the UK will put its money where its mouth is by pulling RBS’s business out of the tar sands.”

Campaigners say that RBS invested nearly £5 billion in companies mining Canadian tar sands between 2007 and 2009. The mining leaves huge lakes of toxic waste which First Nation communities blame for high rates of cancer.

The bank has also been criticised for having provided financial support worth £163 million to Vedanta Resourceres, a British-owned mining company accused of pollution and human rights violations in Orissa, an impoverished region in central India.

In addition, RBS has come under fire for putting £147 million into US companies that help make cluster bombs. The bombs, which scatter lethal explosives indiscriminately over a wide area, are due to be banned by international law from 1 August this year.

The RBS chairman will also meet representatives from the World Development Movement, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth Scotland, People and Planet, Platform and Scottish Education for Action and Development.

Last night the groups projected a large picture graphically illustrating the bank’s “toxic investments” onto the Edinburgh International Conference Centre where the AGM is to take place. They have also organised an alternative “public shareholders meeting” after Wednesday’s AGM in a nearby hotel.

“We are happy to take the opportunity to meet the RBS chairman,” said Liz Murray from the World Development Movement in Scotland. “We will present detailed arguments why we believe that RBS should become the Royal Bank of Sustainability and stop using taxpayers’ money to finance dirty developments.”

RBS pointed out that it had made major investments in renewable energy, as well as oil and gas. “We are determined to play our part in the global shift to a more efficient, innovative and equitable use of resources and support the UK Government’s leadership on climate change,” said the bank’s spokeswoman.

“We are committed to conducting our business in a sustainable manner by assessing lending, investment and services decisions through defined risk and credit committee procedures; taking into account social, ethical and environmental issues.”