President of The World Bank Jim Yong Kim gestures during the final session 'The Global Agenda 2015' in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos January 24, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim missed a golden opportunity yesterday. In a public address in Washington, DC – a briefing designed to set the tone for key policy discussions with development and finance ministers at next week’s World Bank and IMF spring summit – Kim didn’t mention human rights once.

One could forgive the omission if it were in any way surprising. But the fact is human rights – and the need for governments and the World Bank to respect them – have been largely absent from Kim’s agenda throughout his presidency.

Kim had several opportunities in his speech to raise rights. For instance, when singing China’s praises for its growth in agriculture, Kim could have pointed out that we all have the right to a healthy environment too, and should be free to speak out when pollution is affecting our health. Police and government officials in China have threatened, intimidated, and obstructed journalists trying to report on pollution, and authorities have even withheld results of lead poisoning tests in some contaminated villages in Henan, Yunnan, Shaanxi, and Hunan provinces. We don’t expect Kim to press China on these abusive practices, but he should make it clear that this aspect of “China’s development model” is not one he wants others to copy.

Kim did touch on the importance of accountability, particularly in conflict-affected areas, and warned that discrimination can fuel conflict too. But he could also have talked about the need to build an environment where people can participate in decisions that affect their lives and communities, and hold their governments – and the bank – to account without risk of reprisal.

The World Bank itself is also at fault here. Human Rights Watch has found that World Bank staff often don’t consider the impact of their projects on human rights at all. The bank’s current review of its safeguard policies is a chance for it to address this failure, and live up to its obligation to respect human rights in its lending. World Bank projects should never undermine the rights of the very people they are supposed to be helping.

The bank is in a unique position to advance rights-respecting development through its investments. But to do this, senior staff – particularly Kim – have got to stop treating human rights like some kind of political hot potato, and instead put them at the very heart of development.