In January members of Indian fishing communities, claiming to have been harmed by International Finance Corporation (IFC, the World Bank’s private sector arm) investment in the controversial Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant in Gujarat, India, petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear their case (see Observer Autumn 2017).
The appeal to the highest court in the United States was supported by a number of prominent human rights lawyers, and argued that the DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision in March 2016, affirming the absolute immunity decision, was “inconsistent with international law” (see Observer Spring 2016).
The plaintiffs, supported by US NGO EarthRights International (ERI), maintain that the IFC is not entitled to absolute immunity from the harms it caused and which the IFC does not deny. These include increases in respiratory problems and destruction of fish stocks and livelihoods that resulted from the project. As ERI noted, this is a landmark case, as the US Supreme Court has never before addressed the question of “whether international organizations [like the IFC] can be sued – or whether, as the IFC claims, they are entitled to special immunity from suit in U.S. courts.”
Considering the case, Michelle Harrison from ERI added that, “the IFC was founded to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development, yet the costs of its arrogance and lack of accountability consistently fall hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable – the very people it is supposed to be helping. We hope the Court will hear our clients’ case and finally close the accountability gap for them, and other communities harmed by IFC projects. With IFC’s credibility increasingly in doubt, a measure of accountability is in the IFC’s interests.”
A win for the members of the fishing community could have consequences far beyond their village, as it could, for the first time, make international organisations such as the IFC legally accountable for damages caused by their activities.