(Washington, DC) – The World Bank should not proceed with projects directly benefiting Uzbekistan’s cotton industry until the Uzbek government has taken meaningful steps to end grave human rights violations in cotton production, including forced labor, the Cotton Campaign said today.
The bank’s board of directors is scheduled to consider financing new agriculture projects in Uzbekistan on June 10, 2014. The projects will benefit the cotton sector, which relies on forced labor, including forced child labor. The Cotton Campaign is a coalition of human rights, labor, investor, and business organizations dedicated to ending forced labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan.
“The World Bank has an important role to play in funding development in Uzbekistan, but it shouldn’t support a system that uses forced labor,” said Jessica Evans, senior advocate for international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch, which is a member of the Cotton Campaign. “The bank has proposed some important measures to address forced labor, but until the Uzbek government takes meaningful steps to begin to dismantle its coercive cotton system, these measures will not succeed.”
During the 2013 harvest the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults, to harvest cotton in abusive conditions under threat of punishment.
While the government has reduced the number of children under 16 it forces into the cotton fields, regional authorities, police, and school administrators reporting to the prime minister transported busloads of children ages 16-17 and adults to the country’s cotton fields in 2013, where they picked cotton for weeks at a time. The same officials also control the irrigation system in the bank’s project area.
The World Bank has signaled its intentions to tackle the problem of forced labor in its proposed Uzbekistan projects, which include a US$260 million irrigation project. That indicates an important shift toward recognizing and working to mitigate human rights risks in its investments.
The Bank has indicated it will require the Uzbek government to comply with its own laws prohibiting forced and child labor, to accept third-party monitoring of the projects to identify any forced or child labor, and to exempt land made arable by the project from the state’s cotton procurement system. These steps are an attempt to answer findings of the World Bank accountability mechanism, the Inspection Panel, which reported that a separate World Bank project “may be contributing to a perpetuation of this alleged harm [forced labor].”
However, such measures are inadequate to ensure respect for human rights in Uzbekistan’s abusive cotton industry, said the Cotton Campaign. Cotton is grown on more than one-third of the land in the project area. Even if farmers working this land are exempted from obligatory quotas, it will be difficult for them to abandon cotton overnight. And if they farm cotton, they will be forced to sell it at the state-determined price, which is too low to allow farmers to hire labor at market rates, making the use of government-supplied forced labor all but unavoidable.
The World Bank’s safeguard policies are largely silent on international human rights and labor obligations. The World Bank should include a requirement to respect human rights during its ongoing review and update these safeguard policies.
To produce cotton, the Uzbek government forces farmers to meet annual quotas of cotton under threat of penalties that include loss of their lease to farm the land and criminal sanction, and forces children and adults to pick cotton under threat of penalties that include expulsion from school or loss of employment. The government owns all land, is the only buyer of cotton, and pays farmers a price for raw cotton below cost of production, making it impossible for farmers to hire labor, invest in improving production practices, or earn adequate incomes.
This system is contrary to the bank’s commitments for sustainable economic growth that is inclusive and helps the country’s poor, the Cotton Campaign said. The government has not taken any meaningful steps to dismantle the state-ordered and forced labor system of cotton production.
The World Bank should delay consideration of the projects while maintaining its high-level dialogue with the government on labor rights. The bank should proceed with these projects only when it sees meaningful progress in dismantling the system, and the Uzbek government has eradicated forced labor and assured respect for human rights in the project areas.
The current repressive climate for independent organizations in Uzbekistan presents a significant barrier to civic participation and meaningful consultation with those affected by the project. Authorities regularly threaten, imprison, and torture rights defenders and civil society activists, and block international rights groups and media outlets from operating in Uzbekistan. Numerous human rights defenders, independent journalists, and opposition activists are in prison in retaliation for their work or criticism of the government.
The Cotton Campaign recommends that the World Bank:
- Postpone consideration of the South Karakalpakstan Water Resources Management Improvement Project and the Horticulture Development Project until the Uzbek government has eradicated forced labor in project areas and taken meaningful steps toward dismantling the coercive cotton system;
- When financing projects in Uzbekistan, require the government to provide journalists and independent organizations unfettered access to project areas and ensure that no one faces reprisals for monitoring human rights violations in the area, bringing complaints, or engaging with monitors;
- Urge the government to respect freedoms of association, speech, and press to ensure citizens the capacity to report human rights violations without facing reprisal;
- Continue to raise with the government, both publicly and privately, concerns about forced labor and other serious human rights violations, including through the bank’s country strategy for Uzbekistan, and work with the government to address these concerns;
- Work with the Uzbek government to enhance financial transparency and accountability, particularly with respect to income from cotton sales;
- Through the bank’s ongoing safeguards review, include a commitment to respect and protect international human rights law, including international labor standards, and undertake not to support any activities that are likely to contribute to or exacerbate human rights violations; and
- Require human rights due diligence to achieve these commitments, including assessing the human rights impacts of its activities and avoiding, addressing, or mitigating adverse impacts.
“The World Bank has an obligation to ensure it doesn’t fund projects that perpetuate human rights violations in Uzbekistan,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. “It has not lived up to this responsibility in these proposed Uzbekistan projects.”