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(Washington, DC) – The World Bank has closed its eyes to risks to the human rights of the very people it seeks to benefit, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The bank lacks adequate checks to guard against funding human rights abuse. The bank’s board will meet as part of its ongoing policy review, which provides an opportunity to remedy this policy gap, in Washington on July 23, 2013.

The 59-page report, “Abuse-Free Development: How the World Bank Should Safeguard Against Human Rights Violations,” draws on Human Rights Watch research from around the globe to document the harm caused to some of the world’s most vulnerable people by bank-financed programs. Human Rights Watch drew on three case studies, one from Vietnam and two from Ethiopia, to illustrate how the bank neither acknowledged the human rights risks of the programs it financed nor took steps to mitigate the problems.

“The World Bank pays tens of billions of dollars every year to support development efforts around the world,” said Jessica Evans, senior advocate on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch. “But it needs to stop undermining its efforts by making sure it isn’t contributing to human rights abuses.”

The World Bank’s recently adopted goals to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity are inextricably linked to the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, water, and housing, Human Rights Watch said. But the bank cannot meaningfully achieve these goals in complex environments without ensuring that it respects the rights of the people it is working to benefit.

The World Bank’s two year review and update of its safeguard policies, which began in October 2012, provides an opportunity for the bank to create a due diligence framework that will enable it to identify the human rights impacts of its activities. Such a framework would help the bank take measures to mitigate negative impacts, maximize positive impacts, and avoid financing projects and programs that will contribute to, or exacerbate, human rights violations. The World Bank should make human rights law a key component of its development manifesto.

In several cases, the World Bank has neither acknowledged nor mitigated human rights risks in its programs, Human Rights Watch found. As a result, for example, in Vietnam, the World Bank has funded programs in government drug detention centers in which Human Rights Watch has documented arbitrary detention, forced labor, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment.

In Ethiopia, the World Bank did not work to avoid the risks that the government’s quashing of free speech, denial of basic services to perceived or real political opponents, or forcible relocation program presented for its programs.

Through a US$2 billion project, the World Bank is working to support education, health, water, sanitation, rural roads, and agricultural extension services in Ethiopia. Some staff members contend that by contributing to developing these services, this project benefits human rights. But in Ethiopia’s western Gambella region, the main vehicle for achieving development objectives, including those envisioned under this World Bank project, is a program that not only fails to further such rights, it tramples on them, Human Rights Watch found.

Known as “villagization,” the government initiative is relocating 1.5 million indigenous and other marginalized people to new villages, where the better services and infrastructure the government promises is often a fiction. Villagization has been marred by violence.

One 20-year-old man who escaped to South Sudan told Human Rights Watch, “Soldiers came and asked me why I refused to be relocated.… They started beating me until my hands were broken.… I ran to tell [my father] what had happened, but the soldiers followed me. My father and I ran away.… I heard the sound of gunfire.”

Forced to separate from his father, he kept running and hid from the soldiers in nearby bushes. When he returned the next day, he learned that his father had been killed.

The World Bank should make a commitment both to respect and to protect human rights, Human Rights Watch said. That should include ensuring that it does not exacerbate or contribute to human rights violations through its lending or other activities. The World Bank should carry out systematic due diligence to make sure that it honors its commitment.

Had it taken such steps with projects it is implementing in regions where the Ethiopian government was carrying out villagization, for example, the bank would have been aware of the risks of arbitrary arrests and detention, forced evictions, beatings, torture, and killings. It would also have identified the potential for reduced and inadequate access to food, health care, and water in the places where the villagers were being moved. The bank could have built measures to avoid these risks into its project design.

“Human rights due diligence is not about naming and shaming governments in need of development funds,” Evans said. “It is the process of looking at the effect of the World Bank’s lending or other support on human rights, and figuring out how to avoid or mitigate human rights risks.”

As they currently stand, the World Bank’s safeguard policies are insufficient to ensure that human rights are respected in its projects. While the bank has committed not to finance project activities that would contravene borrower country obligations under relevant international environmental treaties and agreements, it is silent on obligations under international human rights treaties. The bank has policies on involuntary resettlement and indigenous peoples, but even these policies fall short of international human rights standards. Funding decisions relating to rights concerns lack transparency and appear arbitrary and inconsistent, Human Rights Watch found.

The absence of a clear commitment not to support 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. Staff members have unfettered discretion to determine the extent to which they will consider human rights risks, take measures to mitigate or avoid harm, and even to bring problems to the attention of senior management or the board. The lack of clear procedures and policies on human rights means that people whose rights are adversely affected have no way to hold the bank to account.

By adopting a human-rights-conscious approach, the World Bank can minimize avoidable suffering, especially among marginalized, excluded, and vulnerable groups, making its development efforts more sustainable. By supporting governments in meeting their human rights obligations, the bank can advance consistency in government policy. Reducing human rights risks also can help to mitigate legal and financial risks, and potential harm to the bank’s reputation.

The World Bank needs to improve the human rights standards it sets for itself, to meet its legal obligations and to remain a leading development institution, Human Rights Watch said. Member countries have similar and additional specific human rights obligations, which they retain while they are members of the bank and as they sit on the bank’s Board of Executive Directors, which approves bank projects.

The World Bank should amend its safeguard policies to:

  • Commit not to support any activities that will contribute to or exacerbate human rights violations, and to respect international human rights in all activities, irrespective of the funding mechanism utilized.
  • Undertake due diligence to honor this commitment, including by undertaking human rights impact assessments to identify the human rights impacts of its activities and avoid or mitigate adverse impacts. The bank can also use such impact assessments to maximize positive human rights impacts of its activities, consistent with its poverty alleviation mandate.
  • Enhance existing safeguards to meet international human rights standards, including updating the indigenous peoples and involuntary resettlement policies to meet the standards set out in relevant human rights treaties, declarations, and documents from treaty bodies and UN special rapporteurs interpreting these obligations.
  • Ensure that it does not discriminate against people on any grounds prohibited by international law, and that all members of affected communities have the opportunity to meaningfully participate in shaping development agendas and policies, during all stages of projects or programs.

“At one time, the World Bank said that its nonpolitical mandate precluded it from even considering human rights in its funding decisions,” Evans said. “Now the bank accepts that it can consider human rights, but views that as discretionary. It is high time that the World Bank recognized that universal human rights are not discretionary.”

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