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A report reveals that the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, its quasi-independent accountability mechanism, won’t investigate whether the bank is perpetuating forced labor in Uzbekistan, even though its initial examination found that bank projects in the country may be doing just that.

This decision calls into question the Inspection Panel’s commitment to stand with communities to end abuse.

The government forces millions of people to pick cotton in Uzbekistan each autumn for little or no pay, living in filthy conditions and missing work or school. Journalists and activists who report on these practices have been arrested and beaten. Under international pressure, the government ended the nationwide mobilization of children to harvest cotton in 2014, taking up the slack with adults.

But the Inspection Panel decided that World Bank management and the Uzbek government are doing enough to address the problem since the government is now willing to discuss the issue and promised to respect labor standards in its loan agreements. The bank has also committed to create a complaint mechanism and contract the International Labour Organization (ILO) to monitor bank projects for forced and child labor. But these meager promises ring hollow when the government isn’t dismantling its forced labor system, continues to deny its violation of forced labor conventions, and neither the complaint mechanism nor monitoring are up and running.

The World Bank’s board supported the recommendation not to investigate. Brazil and the United States highlighted the need to strengthen the Inspection Panel and expressed concern about reprisals against those reporting on labor conditions. But other board members, including EU members, said the bank has done enough.

The Inspection Panel and the board have effectively sent a message to the Uzbek government that as long as it pays lip service to addressing the issue, it can continue to force millions of people to work in the cotton fields. To World Bank staff, the Inspection Panel has said, make us a few good promises and we will go away. To independent groups trying to report on rights abuses linked to bank projects, they say, not our business. And to Uzbekistan’s forced laborers, the message is tough luck.

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