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Eye on the IFIs

World Bank “Falling Behind” on Human Rights, Critics Warn

WASHINGTON, Jul 23 2013 (IPS) - The World Bank is being urged to explicitly incorporate human rights into its development lending criteria, ahead of an important technical briefing on the subject to its board of directors on Tuesday.

The Washington-based institution has never mandated that the programmes it funds comply with international human rights standards, largely on the concern that politicising the bank’s lending could complicate its country-by-country anti-poverty focus. But rights campaigners are pointing to a growing consensus that sustainable development is impossible without a specific focus on human rights.

"Our understanding of development is not just about income generation – it is about improving people’s lives." -- Kristen Genovese of CIEL

The bank is currently in the midst of a two-year review of its environment and social “safeguards” policies. On Tuesday, the board will discuss input received on the issue from some 1,800 stakeholders over the past year, as well as a draft framework for reforms.

“The safeguard policies are intended to protect people and communities from the unintended harm of Bank-financed activities,” Kristen Genovese, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a Washington watchdog group, told IPS.

“We do not want the Bank to make up its own rules; we already have rules that protect people and the environment that have been agreed to by the international community … this is what the Bank’s intended beneficiaries and civil society organisations are demanding in the safeguard review.”

On Monday, the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, released a report stating, “the time has come for the World Bank to implement mechanisms to prevent it exacerbating or contributing to human rights violations”. In recent months, high-level United Nations officials and some national governments have backed similar calls.

“[D]evelopment finance has been increasingly moving in a direction to better protect human rights,” the report states.

“The World Bank is falling behind … [Yet] the increased ability for non-traditional donors to provide assistance abroad affords the Bank an enhanced opportunity to show how poverty can be eradicated without violating human rights, how aid can reach the poorest and most marginalised communities the right way, and how development can be sustainable.”

Staff discretion

HRW researchers offer three case studies, from Vietnam and Ethiopia, in which programmes partially funded by the World Bank have subsequently been implicated in wide-ranging allegations of rights abuse.

In southern Vietnam from 2005 until 2010, for instance, the bank funded health programmes at government detention centres for addicted drug users that appear to have used, at least in part, an approach of rehabilitation through forced labour. HRW has also documented cases of arbitrary detention and torture at the centres.

In Ethiopia, the bank is funding a two-billion-dollar programme called Promoting Basic Services (PBS), aimed at bolstering health, education, sanitation and other essential concerns. Yet in recent years the Ethiopian government’s development initiative has included, in certain parts of the country, the forcible relocation of around 1.5 million people, particularly ethnic minorities.

HRW says it has verified accounts of at least seven people having died due to a campaign of violence and intimidation carried out against holdouts from this “villagisation” process, allegedly at the hands of Ethiopian state security forces.

“The Bank’s legal counsel has issued a number of opinions in the last 10 years, finding that the Bank can take human rights into account and on occasion should,” Jessica Evans, an HRW senior researcher here in Washington, told IPS.

“But until there is a binding policy requiring the Bank to respect human rights in all of its activities, the degree to which human rights are considered will remain a matter of staff discretion.”

According to Monday’s report, the bank’s refusal to commit to human rights due diligence leaves its staff without clear guidance on whether such issues are or are not their responsibility – much less how to address them.

“In practice, funding decisions relating to rights concerns lack transparency and appear arbitrary and inconsistent,” the report warns. “Further, this precludes people whose rights are adversely affected by these decisions from holding the Bank to account.”

World Bank officials note that the Vietnam drug centre funding was part of a national effort to support the country’s HIV/AIDS programme, and “helped save many lives and reduce social stigma”, according to a bank spokesperson.

In Ethiopia, too, the PBS programme was part of a national push to assist some 84 million Ethiopians, “and has contributed to the country’s exceptional progress towards many of the [Millennium Development Goals].”

“The Bank is dedicated to reducing poverty and protecting people in the projects we finance,” the spokesperson told IPS. “Human Rights Watch has been active in our first round of global conversations on ways to modernise our environmental and social safeguard policies for investment lending, which have been recognised as the world standard.”

Policy first

Further, the spokesperson pointed out that on Jul. 12 the bank authorised its Inspection Panel, an independent complaints body, “to investigate [the Ethiopia] project to see if it followed Bank policies”. (The related complaints can be found here.)

Yet as the process is currently set up, external auditors such as the Inspection Panel can only look into compliance with set bank policy.

“The Inspection Panel will not be able to effectively incorporate human rights into the bank’s lending framework until there is a bank policy that requires respect of human rights,” HRW’s Evans says.

“Once we have such a policy, the Inspection Panel will play a critical role in holding the bank accountable should it fail to comply with it. Until that time, the Panel will only be able to incorporate human rights to the limited degree that the Indigenous Peoples policy allows.”

Campaigners are now calling on the bank to include in its safeguards a commitment not to support any activities that will contribute to or exacerbate human rights violations and to respect international human rights in all of its projects. Doing so, they say, will further the institution’s overall goal.

“The Bank needs to respect human rights in its operations because our understanding of development is not just about income generation – it is about improving people’s lives,” CIEL’s Genovese says.

“When you, for instance, support a mine that despoils the land and pollutes the water – thereby infringing on the communities’ rights to water, health and natural resources – you further impoverish them. Development without respect for human rights is not true development.”

According to the bank’s safeguards review website, a final draft of the safeguards review update is due by June of next year.

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