(Lima, Peru) – The World Bank’s draft social and environmental safeguard policies fail to enforce the bank’s responsibility to protect the human rights of vulnerable communities affected by projects it finances, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the World Bank.
The World Bank group will open its annual meetings in Lima on October 9, 2015, amid the fractious overhaul of these policies.
“Two words – ‘human rights’ – are missing from the safeguards’ requirements and should be a priority during this week’s meetings,” said Jessica Evans, senior advocate and researcher on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch. “It is astounding and disappointing that the bank can put forward policies that purport to ‘safeguard’ poor and vulnerable communities without committing to respect their human rights.”
The annual meetings bring bank staff and directors together with central bankers, finance and development ministers, private sector executives, and academics to discuss progress on the bank’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity.
One topic sure to be on the agenda is the second draft of the World Bank’s proposed safeguard policies, which the bank released in August after a year-long consultation period following its release of an initial draft in July 2014. These policies, which borrowing countries are required to follow for bank-financed projects, are meant to protect project-affected communities and the environment from harm.
Many bank-funded projects affect vulnerable populations in profoundly important ways, including the wholesale resettlement of entire communities. And the bank funds many projects that, if not designed and implemented with appropriate consultation and care, can have devastating and lasting impact on the very people who most need development assistance.
The proposed framework addresses many gaps in the bank’s existing policies, such as the health and safety of project workers and requirements for nondiscrimination. The second draft also corrects a number of problems in the previous one, by, for example, expanding labor protections to contract workers and removing a provision that would have allowed borrowing countries to “opt out” of requirements related to indigenous peoples.
And yet the bank still stubbornly refuses to commit to respect human rights, Human Rights Watch said. This glaring omission, in addition to other remaining problems, leaves the bank poorly positioned to respond appropriately to the complex human rights challenges many of its projects encounter. The new draft even deletes the phrase “respect for human rights” from the non-binding vision statement in the initial draft, and replaces it with vague language that presents human rights as aspirational values. The message is clear: borrowing countries can violate human rights in carrying out World Bank projects, and the bank will not step in.
The bank’s rejection of the human rights framework and the suggestion that human rights are merely aspirational undermines decades of progress in setting international standards that the governments of nearly all World Bank member countries have agreed to respect. It also runs counter to the bank’s poverty-alleviation mandate. Development scholars and practitioners, including World Bank researchers, have long made the case that respect for human rights is critical to achieving inclusive sustained development.
The World Bank has claimed that the draft “goes as far or further than any other multilateral development bank in protecting the vulnerable and the marginalized.” This is not true, Human Rights Watch said. Other multilateral development banks and international agencies, recognizing that respect for human rights improves development outcomes, have incorporated human rights commitments and standards into their safeguard policies.
“The World Bank’s own research shows the importance of human rights to achieving the bank’s goals, and its general counsel concluded that human rights is within its mandate,” Evans said. “Instead of rewriting the rules to avoid human rights, President Kim should be a leader in the development community and embrace them.”