By Kris Genovese
World Bank President Jim Kim has challenged the world with a new campaign, #whatwillittake to end poverty? But it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it. Economic development will not improve the lives of people unless it is accompanied by the guarantee of the full enjoyment of their human rights. Projects financed by the World Bank Group, like the Protection of Basic Services Program in Ethiopia or Dinant in Honduras—to name two recent examples, can, and sometimes do, violate human rights, leaving the very people the Bank aims to support even worse off. As the World Bank undertakes a major review of its environmental and social standards, we’d like you to ask President Kim, #whatwillittake for the World Bank to uphold human rights?
Over the last two decades—mainly in response to controversial projects—the Bank developed a piecemeal set of environmental and social standards, the so-called safeguard policies, whose purpose is to ensure that the Bank “does no harm.” But if you take a look at these policies, you won’t see much mention of human rights. But now there is a chance to change that. In October 2012, the World Bank launched the first review of its safeguard policies. The review is expected to take two years, with multiple opportunities for public input.
You wouldn’t think that it would be so controversial for the Bank to make a commitment to uphold human rights. After all, as a specialized agency of the United Nations, the Bank must act consistently with the UN Charter, which requires “[u]niversal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all…” Moreover, member States (including in their roles as Executive Directors and borrowers of the Bank) are themselves bound by international human rights treaties to which they are parties. For you legal wonks out there, you can read our more detailed argument in a letter we sent to President Kim late last year with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, in a recently published report on her mission to the World Bank, says it short and sweet:
The World Bank should adopt safeguards policies aligned with the international human rights obligations of its member States and clients. Incorporating human rights protections will help member States fulfill their human rights obligations and improve development outcomes by ensuring respect for the rights of those the Bank seeks to benefit.
In the face of the legal, moral, and economic arguments in favor of the Bank adopting human rights requirements, the World Bank hides behind a stale argument that its Articles of Agreement (signed before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) prevent it from considering human rights issues. Our friend, Dominic Renfrey, from ESCR-Net, does a great job of debunking the argument.
Here’s where you come in. The first consultation period for the safeguard review ends in one month on April 21st. We’re asking you to send an email to the U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury represents the United States on the World Bank Board) and to the World Bank to tell them that the safeguard policies must uphold human rights. Specifically, we’re asking the Bank to undertake human rights due diligence, including:
(1) A commitment not to finance activities likely to cause or contribute to human rights abuses;
(2) Human rights impact assessments for all Bank-financed activities; and
(3) Policies that are consistent with human rights standards.
P.S. Stay tuned for more on this next month. Together with International Accountability Project, we’re cooking up a new initiative to better track the human rights impacts of projects financed by the World Bank and other multilateral development banks!