Bank declaration of human rights

24 July 2002

The World Bank President has asked his staff to prepare a human rights strategy. The Bank has previously avoided talking directly about a role for itself in supporting human rights, despite pressure to do so emanating from the United Nations bodies and NGOs.

The Bank aims to prepare a strategy which “without overstepping our mandate or compromising our advantage of political neutrality in the eyes of our members, fully realizes our mission’s tie to the advancement of human rights”, according to its general counsel Ko-Yung Tung. Ko-Yung was a member of the board of Human Rights Watch before he joined the Bank.

The Bank held a workshop in May to discuss the issues. A memo circulated to Bank staff by Ko-Yung after this said: “we should not be afraid to state that the Bank plays a critical role in the realization of human rights”. He continued: “human rights to me fundamentally means respecting the dignity of each individual. Poverty being an abject indignity, our mission of fighting poverty directly involves the advancement of human rights. Human rights is also tied closely to our efforts in promoting the rule of law through our legal and judicial reform activities. We are not, however, a ‘world government’ or ‘world policeman’–we do not legislate human rights, nor do we enforce them. We are a development bank, and as such we assist our member states and their citizens to realize their rights by helping them address crucial issues of health, environment, education, and other basic needs”.

In a 1998 publication on human rights, the Bank accepted in general terms that property rights, participation rights, special measures for excluded persons and groups and independent judicial systems are fundamental to poverty reduction, the Bank’s primary goal. However it did not state that the Bank has a legal obligation to respect human rights. In May, Alberto Saldamando, General Counsel for the International Indian Treaty Council, told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: “The World Bank and the IMF have a duty, a legal obligation, to observe human rights in everything they do’.

Many critics of the Bank will be glad that the Bank does not intend to become the world’s interpreter and arbiter of human rights. But concerns have already been raised about the extent to which the Bank will be ready to be held accountable for its performance against the full set of relevant rights. Korinna Horta, who works with US campaign group Environmental Defense, commented in a recent article for the Harvard Human Rights Journal: “The institution makes a disingenuous distinction by separating political and civil rights from economic and social rights”. The Bank is known to be looking at the right to education and food in the context of the PRSPs, but will it cover freedom of association and similar issues?

Horta argues that the Bank’s talk of fighting corruption, reforming governance and empowering citizens is inconsistent with its continued technocratic and depoliticized approach to development financing. Horta points out that “large amounts of money continue to flow to governments that systematically abuse human rights and have shown little commitment to alleviating poverty or protecting the natural resources”.

In the past the World Bank has been much-criticised for its loans to Suharto’s Indonesia, Mobutu’s Zaire or the Philippines under Marcos. But more recently it has turned a blind eye to the responsibilities of countries neighbouring the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Horta describes the findings of a recent report for the UN Security Council which found that the illegal exploitation of gold, diamonds, copper and cobalt is being carried out and exported via Rwanda and Uganda, with massive financial gains for officers in the Rwandan and Ugandan armies. The World Bank must have been aware of this situation (if only because Uganda started exporting large quantities of diamonds and other minerals which it does not produce). Horta argues “had the World Bank publicized the looting of the DRC by Uganda and Rwanda and threatened to cut off funding for both governments instead of rewarding them, it could have made a contribution to establishing peace, a critical pre-condition to its mission of alleviating poverty.”

Campaigners also point to the fact that the Bank has recently diluted its operational policies on indigenous peoples and on resettlement. In discussions on these policies as well as its forest policy, it has consistently refused to mention international law. Bank reviews state that around three million people have been displaced from their lands as a result of World Bank projects. Very few of those affected have been properly compensated. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has underscored the human rights obligations of these two institutions and notes that “the international agencies should scrupulously avoid involvement in projects which, for example, involve the use of forced labour or large-scale evictions or displacement of persons”.

The World Bank’s recent support for the Chad/Cameroon oil pipeline reveals its inconsistent approach. The area of the proposed oilfield in Southern Chad has seen many human rights breaches. An organization working to represent the local population (Entente des Populations de la Zone Pétrolière) did not receive legal recognition from the government and was disbanded. Yet the Bank overruled requests from Chadian civil society groups for a moratorium on Bank support for the project until such issues were resolved. In a specific instance of human rights abuse, however, Bank President James Wolfensohn personally intervened with the president of Chad to help secure the release of Ngarlejy Yorongar, a presidential candidate who campaigned against the pipeline.

It will certainly be good for the World Bank to clarify what it sees as its role in pursuing human rights. Bank staff are carefully considering the options available to them following Wolfensohn’s edict to produce something to discuss for the annual meetings this September. It is clearly sensible for the Bank to clarify its understanding of rights issues. But how far will the Bank go in a situation where a number of governments sitting on its board as well as its own legal and other staff will urge extreme caution? Will the Bank accept:

  • its responsibility to respect international human rights law in full?
  • that it should share financial, legal and moral responsibility for projects or programmes which have direct negative social impacts?
  • claims for compensation from people negatively affected by projects or programmes where the Bank can be proved to share responsibility for this outcome?
  • the judgement of relevant UN bodies on human rights?
  • that it should avoid large-scale evictions resulting from its actions?
  • demands from unions that World Bank contracts should incorporate clauses protecting workers’ rights?
  • that the rights of workers and service users need better protection during Bank-backed privatisation of services or other public service reforms?

The Bretton Woods Project plans to work with others to track the Bank’s progress towards a new human rights agenda.

Mary Robinson speech at the World Bank, December 2001
IFIs must respect human rights, Bretton Woods Update 25
Universal rights or a universe unto itself? Indigenous peoples’ human rights and the World Bank’s Draft Operational Policy 4.10 on indigenous peoples, Fergus MacKay. Article in American University International Law Review, Vol 17, No 3.
Development and Human Rights: the Role of the World Bank
UN Human Rights information
UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2001/5 , Progress report by J Oloka-Onyango and D Udagama

Center of Concern’s Submission to the Preparatory Committee of the UN Conference on Financing for Development : Addressing systemic issues: enhancing the coherence and consistency of the international monetary, financial and trading system in support of development

Coherence between the UN’s sustainable development agenda and the policies of monetary, trade and financial institutions

Presentation delivered at the UN Financing for Development Conference side-event “Towards improved Global Governance: Discussion among Governments, IMF, the World Bank, European Commission and NGOs on the basis of the proposals made in the Monterrey Consensus paper”

“The Human Rights Obligations of the World Bank and IMF”, S. Skogly, Cavendish Publishing, London, 2001 Harvard Human Rights Journal special issue, Vol 15, Spring 2002
The World Bank: Governance and Human Rights, Lawyers Committee For Human Rights, 1993.

Mainstreaming Ethnodevelopment: Poverty and Ethnicity in World Bank Policy, Maarten H.J. van den Berg, RISQ (scroll down as this is the second paper on the page)

Blanket immunity for the World Bank?
by A.H.Monjurul Kabir, The Daily Star, 21 July 2002

Human Rights and the International Financial Institutions
by Jorge Daniel Taillant (CEDHA), June 2002

Quotations on human rights and the Bank

“The voices out there, the noise level is really challenging us. It’s saying, ‘but in what you do you are inhibiting the provision of rights.’ They say ‘the conditions of your lending or the overhanging debt is an abomination in terms of the ability to deliver rights.’ I see this as a challenge.”
James Wolfensohn, Remarks on Human Rights and Sustainable Development: What Role for the Bank? 2 May, 2002, Washington D.C.

“The World Bank has progressed from outright rejection of human rights in the 1960s to cautious engagement in a few, defined areas. However, this engagement is still qualified by an arbitrary distinction between rights of a political nature and rights related to economic or social well-being”.
Fergus MacKay, Forest Peoples Programme, draft 2001 p. 9

“Political rights . . . are not only pivotal in inducing social responses to economic needs, they are also central to the conceptualization of economic needs themselves.”
Amartya Sen

Send other relevant quotations, or your views on the Bank and human rights to info@brettonwoodsproject.org