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(Washington, DC) – The World Bank should incorporate human rights in its revised policies as a key component of fulfilling its mission to eradicate poverty, Human Rights Watch and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) said today.

A new review of the World Bank’s environmental and social policies, known as the “safeguard” policies, begins with a consultation meeting in Washington, DC on November 15, 2012.

“The World Bank has long ignored the importance of free speech, assembly, and association and other basic human rights,” said Jessica Evans, senior advocate on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch. “In the wake of the popular upheavals in the Arab world, the World Bank needs to recognize that human rights are critically important to its efforts to reduce poverty.”

Some World Bank-funded projects have been plagued by human rights problems. The World Bank recently approved a project in Ethiopia that indirectly funds forced evictions of indigenous peoples and other marginalized ethnic groups. These forced evictions, in violation of international law, violate rights to adequate housing and other social and economic rights including the rights to food, water, and education.

The World Bank Group, whose mission is to reduce global poverty and achieve sustainable development, should make a commitment to incorporate and abide by human rights standards in all of its activities, the groups said. As a starting point, it should require human rights due diligence and put measures into place to address any human rights risks before financing projects and programs.

The World Bank’s review of the safeguard policies is expected to take two years, during which time it will accept comments on its current standards, including policies on indigenous peoples and involuntary resettlement, and on whether to expand its coverage to other areas such as labor rights and climate change.

The World Bank has an obligation to ensure that it does not fund rights abuses, directly or indirectly, the groups said. The safeguards review is an important opportunity to introduce the necessary checks and balances in order to avoid adverse rights impacts.

There are other benefits to a human rights-approach, the groups said. The World Bank has recognized that many people living in poverty are victims of discrimination, including women, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities. By incorporating human rights standards, the bank would have a useful tool to address inequality and entrenched discrimination and to ensure that the benefits of development reach the most marginalized members of society.

Historically, the World Bank Group has dismissed human rights as a “political” issue and therefore outside of its mandate as a development bank. The same was true of corruption until a former Bank president, James Wolfensohn, took the seemingly risky step of raising “the c-word” and began to address the issue within the bank and in its lending. President Jim Yong Kim has a similar opportunity to modernize the bank by taking on human rights, the groups said.

“The World Bank Group is not above international law – the bank and its member states must abide by human rights standards in their development activities,” said Kris Genovese, senior attorney at CIEL. “Now is the time for the bank to move into the 21st century and, if he’s willing to show leadership andsustained engagement with member countries, Kim can realize this signature achievement.”

The current policies of the World Bank Group and their implementation are not sufficient to prevent or address the adverse impact on human rights that lending may have, the groups said. The diversification of lending instruments and activities supported by the Group are governed by a patchwork of inconsistent and increasingly vague policies that leave too much room for interpretation.

For instance, in the Ethiopia project, approved on September 25, the institution has not applied its safeguard policies on involuntary resettlement and indigenous peoples despite evidence that the project funds, at least indirectly, forced relocation of indigenous peoples and other marginalized ethnic groups. In other cases, even this patchwork of policies has been abandoned in favor of allowing funds to be disbursed without ensuring any protection for communities or the environment.

Commitment to human rights is not just a matter of good policy; it is also a political commitment and an obligation under international law. Member countries should not set aside their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights when they enter the boardroom or when they sign a loan agreement.

Further, as a UN specialized agency, the World Bank Group must act consistently with the UN Charter, which requires “[u]niversal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all… .” The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has also stated that the World Bank “should act as [an] advocate of projects and approaches which contribute … to enhanced enjoyment of the full range of human rights.” Individually and collectively, member countries have the duty to ensure that their decisions do not lead to human rights violations.

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