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World Bank Guidance Leaves Rights Loopholes

Draft Sidesteps Instructions to Prevent Harm From Bank Projects

Members of the Boeung Kak Lake community in Cambodia demonstrate at a police blockade in December 2012 on the second day of community activist Yorm Bopha’s trial, on trumped up charges apparently brought for speaking out on forced evictions linked to a World Bank financed project. © 2012 John Vink/Magnum Photos

The World Bank has spent the past four years overhauling the rules it applies to prevent or mitigate social and environmental harm from the development projects it finances. But human rights are all but absent in its new rules.

These rules, the Environmental and Social Framework, do not acknowledge internationally agreed upon human rights standards. Draft guidance notes released on November 2 that are supposed to provide practical guidance for applying the framework similarly sidestep human rights standards.

Human Rights Watch had hoped that, at the very least, the non-binding Guidance Notes would cite human rights standards and provide borrowers with practical ways to ensure that bank-funded projects don’t harm the very communities they are meant to serve. But they don’t come close to achieving this. In fact, the draft gives borrowers a lot of room to avoid these standards.

The framework requires borrowers to respect international obligations that are “directly applicable to the project under relevant international treaties and agreements,” which should include human rights standards. The guidelines simply repeat the same vague statement instead of explaining where to look for these obligations in international law, how to determine whether they are applicable, and how they have been carried out in practice.

Similarly, the framework’s non-discrimination requirement only refers to “vulnerable and disadvantaged” groups and does not list the well-established protected grounds under human rights law. After repeated requests by nongovernmental groups, the bank issued an accompanying presidential directive listing protected groups, but it still excluded several grounds for protection under human rights law, including discrimination on the grounds of language, sex characteristics, marital or family status, and political affiliation. The guidance notes don’t correct the omission.

Moreover, the notes direct borrowers to make unspecified “special efforts” to ensure that the consultation process includes disadvantaged groups, but they don’t provide concrete advice on how to achieve this, including how to protect project critics from reprisals or to eliminate barriers to community participation.

If the World Bank is serious about building borrowers’ capacity to apply its new Environmental and Social Framework, it should revise the guidance notes to include practical advice on how to do that.

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