May 14, 2013

The World Bank can minimize avoidable suffering, especially among marginalized, excluded, and vulnerable groups by doing a better job of protecting rights. This would only enhance the sustainability and impact of its development efforts.

A grandmother in Cambodia told me recently, “I just want you to know my story in case something happens and I am gone.” Police and government officials have threatened and harassed “Kunthea” for her protests against government agencies and appeals to the World Bank after she was forcibly evicted from her home by a private company. The World Bank’s involvement was through a land titling project which had not secured land rights for Kunthea or her neighbors. This is just one example of how the Bank’s activities can have an impact on human rights, but the Bank still insists that it has no obligation to ensure that its projects do not contribute to rights violations.

In April at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s 2013 spring meetings, the Bank introduced its new “vision,” in which it pledged to work toward eliminating extreme poverty and raising the income of the poorest 40 percent of the population in each country. But the “vision” included no mention of rights. As several development and human rights organizations noted in a joint statement, this “vision” will be undermined if the World Bank doesn’t start recognizing the importance of human rights for its development work.

The groups were united in their call for the World Bank President, Jim Kim, to make a firm commitment to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights in all Bank activities. The United Nations special rapporteurs on extreme poverty, indigenous peoples, the right to food, and foreign debt have made a similar call. Human Rights Watch has also done so in its “Human Rights Agenda for the World Bank.”

The World Bank can minimize avoidable suffering, especially among marginalized, excluded, and vulnerable groups by doing a better job of protecting rights. This would only enhance the sustainability and impact of its development efforts.

The Bank hasn’t always been silent on the subject. Fifteen years ago, in fact, it recognized that “creating the conditions for attainment of human rights is a central and irreducible goal of development” and that “the world now accepts that sustainable development is impossible without human rights.”

The World Bank has legal obligations to respect and protect human rights, as an international organization and a UN specialized agency. Moreover, the Bank’s member countries have specific human rights obligations that they cannot abandon when they decide whether to approve Bank lending and projects.

Some parts of the Bank and some governments contend that talk of human rights is just politics. They say that to consider such issues would violate the Bank’s “non-political” mandate. But it should be obvious that the Bank’s mandate does not authorize it to participate in violating human rights. As the Bank said back in 1998, it “has always taken measures to ensure that human rights are fully respected in connection with the projects it supports.” In practice, though, the Bank’s safeguard policies are insufficient to protect human rights.

The Bank’s resistance to adhering to international human rights law sharply contrasts with its stand on international environmental law. The Bank says it won’t support lending to projects that violate relevant international environmental treaties and agreements. So why should it be silent on complying with human rights treaties? It should take the same approach to human rights law that it does to environmental law.

The absence of a clear commitment not to support any activities that will contribute to or exacerbate human rights violations leaves staff without guidance on how they should approach human rights concerns or what their responsibilities are. The result is unfettered discretion for staff to determine the extent to which they will consider risks to human rights and whether to do anything about them. In practice, Bank efforts to protect rights appear arbitrary, inconsistent, or even nonexistent, and the people these problems affect have little or no recourse for the harm they suffered.

Kunthea in Cambodia knows first-hand the consequences of the Bank’s failure to consider the human rights impacts of its projects. By committing to human rights in all of its activities and enshrining that commitment in its safeguards policies, the World Bank will not only do a better job of protecting human rights but also of fulfilling its mandate to reduce poverty.

Jessica Evans is the senior advocate and researcher on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch. You can follow her on twitter @evans_jessica.