Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman speaks during the inaugural Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing Sunday, May 14, 2017.

© 2019 Lintao Zhang/Pool Photo via AP

(New York) – The Chinese government should ensure the projects it finances or engages in under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) respect human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 25-27, 2019, President Xi Jinping will host heads of state and international organization leaders at the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. The BRI, announced in 2013, is China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure and investment program stretching across some 70 countries, linking China to the rest of Asia, Africa, and Europe via land and maritime networks.

Under the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese government should set out requirements to enable meaningful consultation with groups of people potentially affected by proposed projects. It should also ensure that affected communities can openly express their views without fear of reprisal. Other governments, the United Nations, and financial institutions should press Beijing to adopt such protections.

“Beijing claims it is committed to working with other countries to foster environment-friendly and sound development, but the practice so far has raised some serious concerns,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Criticisms of some Belt and Road projects – such as lack of transparency, disregard of community concerns, and threats of environmental degradation – suggest a superficial commitment.”

In recent years, some BRI projects have not conducted or disclosed adequate environmental and social impact assessments, or sufficiently consulted local communities that would be affected by the projects during planning and construction processes, prompting widespread protests.

Such practices are inconsistent with basic obligations of states under international human rights law concerning a healthy and sustainable environment. Some BRI projects have also drawn criticism for facilitating corruption, nontransparent loan agreements, and noncompetitive contracts that require the use of Chinese companies. Amid inflated project costs, several BRI recipient countries, such as Djibouti, Pakistan, and the Maldives, are at high risk of debt distress, potentially diverting limited government resources away from essential services to debt servicing.

The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China, two of China’s policy banks and the biggest financiers of the BRI, have not publicly articulated mechanisms to ensure transparency, accountability, or respect for human rights in financing BRI projects. A policy document issued in 2017 by the Office of the Leading Group for the Belt and Road Initiative, the government body that oversees implementation of the BRI, made no mention of human rights.

In Pakistan, the Chinese government has made developing the port city of Gwadar the centerpiece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship BRI project totaling US$62 billion. In 2015, as part of the project, the Chinese government offered a loan of $130 million to build the East Bay Expressway, which will link the port to a major national highway. Since the Chinese state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) started construction on the highway in October 2018, local fishermen in Gwadar have raised concerns about the lack of transparency and consultations, and potential impacts on their livelihoods. They have held news conferences, strikes, and marches to protest the highway, which they allege would block their access to the sea and deprive them of their ancestral source of livelihood without offering any alternatives. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan assured “inclusive development” but construction has proceeded without any of the fishermen’s demands being addressed.

In Myanmar, the Chinese government has ramped-up pressure on Myanmar authorities over the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State. The Myanmar government suspended the construction of the dam in 2011, after nationwide protests. Critics say the mega-dam would cause large-scale displacement, loss of livelihoods, wide-scale environmental damage, and destruction of cultural heritage sites significant to the ethnic Kachin people. The project has been criticized for having little transparency. In February, a Chinese government statement contending that most Kachin people support the revival of the dam project drew thousands of people to march in opposition to the claim. The Myanmar government briefly detained a protest leader.

In Sri Lanka, the CCCC in January completed the first phase of construction of Colombo Port City, a financial district in the country’s capital. The $1.4 billion development project has drawn continuing protests over environmental harm. Many residents fear that land reclamation required for the project would lead to coastal erosion and reduce fish populations, threatening the lagoon ecosystem and fishermen’s livelihoods. As with many other BRI projects, the agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the CCCC has not been made public.

The Chinese government and state-owned banks have responded to community opposition to planned Belt and Road projects in some cases. In March, Chinese authorities dropped a plan to blast rocky outcrops and islets in the upper reaches of the Mekong River to allow smooth passage of large cargo vessels, after strong protests by residents and environmental groups from Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Also in March, the state-owned Bank of China said it would evaluate the funding commitment to the Batang Toru hydropower plant in Indonesia, asserting that the bank was committed to supporting environmental protection and corporate social responsibility. Critics fear the dam would cause environmental degradation and threaten the critically endangered orangutan.

“People and governments in some ‘Belt and Road’ countries are pushing back against threats to their physical, financial, and environmental well-being,” Wang said. “Chinese authorities should respond by committing to meaningful community consultation, project transparency, respect for peaceful protest, and addressing community concerns.”