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The World Bank spends tens of billions of dollars every year on “development.” Finland gives out a share of its public development aid to the World Bank. In 2012 alone, Finland’s contribution was 122 million euros.

The bank works in some of the most complex environments around the world, in cooperation with some of the most repressive governments. You’d think it would pay close attention to whether any of these governments are violating human rights with this money. It doesn’t.

A rare opportunity for change has come about as the bank undertakes the first wholesale review of its policies designed to prevent harm to people and their environment. But to date, no member of the bank’s Board of Executive Directors has signalled it will champion making human rights part of the bank’s development manifesto.

Finland’s own Satu Santala, the executive director for the board’s Nordic Baltic constituency, is one of the 25 board members representing the bank’s 188 member countries and has the opportunity to be the champion needed for human rights in this review process.

It is bewildering that one of the world’s leading development agencies does not recognize its obligation to respect international human rights law.

In Vietnam, for instance, the World Bank funded HIV-related services in detention centers where suspected drug users – some as young as 12 – were held without due process, beaten, abused and forced to work.

Uncovering these abuses would not have taken an undercover investigation; the World Bank need only have looked at official documents. Government regulations say that “labor therapy” is one of the official five steps of drug rehabilitation.

Had it considered the human rights risks in Vietnam, the World Bank would have identified the problems of arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor, and various violations of children’s rights. Then the bank could have built measures to avoid these risks into its project design – for instance by supporting HIV-specific health services in the community for people released from drug detention centers.

The absence of a clear commitment not to support activities that will contribute to or exacerbate human rights violations leaves World Bank staff without guidance on how they should approach human rights concerns or what their responsibilities are.

Introducing a human rights commitment would include carrying out systematic human rights due diligence for every program, first to identify how its lending or other support may contribute to human rights violations and then to figure out constructive ways to avoid or mitigate the human rights risks. Such an approach would enable bank staff to minimize suffering, especially among marginalized, excluded, and vulnerable groups, and in doing so make its development efforts more sustainable.

Through this ongoing review, Finland has the opportunity to work with like-minded governments to finally ground the World Bank in international human rights law. Such reform is essential if the World Bank is to meaningfully achieve its recently adopted goals to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity in complicated countries like Vietnam.

Jessica Evans is researcher on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch.

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