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Opinion 10 December 2018

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates 70 years

It was 1948. A wintry cold December 10th in Paris, and Eleanor Roosevelt was nervous. It was to be a historic day. Without hesitating, she cleared her throat and with the following words began a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations introducing the unique Universal Declaration: “We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.”

Seventy years later we celebrate the very moment the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born. Since then, the global landscape has changed, most especially the role of business, which finds itself currently involved in jurisdictions that were previously the exclusive domain of governments.

At BBVA we understood early on that with this new landscape, our impact on society – positive and negative, direct and indirect – would transcend mere business, which is why we undertook a commitment that has become a journey. The journey has been complex; sometimes we have sailed alone, pushed on by our stakeholders; other times, we were accompanied by our peers in the industry; and still other times with global partners. But always going in the same direction.

We worked internally so that our core policies would reflect our commitment to adhere with human rights – from our first Code of Conduct launched in 2005, which contained an explicit reference to the 70 year old Universal Declaration to our current Corporate Social Responsibility Policy (2018).  The central pillar that has guided us has been our Commitment to Human Rights, revised in 2018, and the Action Plans on Human Rights 2018-2020, which is the output of internal due diligence.  In truth, we would never have been able to achieve all this without the encouragement of various stakeholders: from investors and shareholders with whom we have maintained a healthy dialog, to NGOS, who not only challenged us, but also provided us new reasons to stay on course and fulfill the commitments we had made.

From an industry standpoint, we joined Thun Group in its earliest days. From then on, we met frequently with a group of banks, all of whom shared the mission to see the successful ratification of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights adopted in 2011. These principles, popularly known as the Ruggie Principles represented a significant milestone for companies interested in incorporating human rights into their way of conducting business. But they needed to be commonly ratified on an industry level in order to ensure their rigorous implementation.

At the global level, we became the first Spanish bank to sign three key commitments:

  1. In 2002, the United Nations Global Compact.
  2. In 2004, the Equator Principles by which we assumed the challenge of conducting social and environmental risk assessments for large-scale financing projects.
  3. In 2008, the Principles for Responsible Investment (UN-PRI), thus we incorporated social (with a special focus on Human Rights) and environmental issues into our investment analysis and decision-making processes.

The tenth of December, Human Rights Day, is a day to be celebrated, but also a day of reflection, to ask ourselves: In a modern context of digital disruption, can we meet the challenges that pose a threat to human dignity? Our commitment has evolved like a journey, and on this journey we have not stopped asking questions. The journey is continuous, and adapts to new challenges. But, today we will stop to celebrate a landmark: Happy 70th Birthday!

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