World Bank faces lobbies on human rights, climate change

5 April 2004

The World Bank has recently faced increasing pressure to adopt strong policies on human rights and climate change. NGOs have been joined by parliamentarians, nobel laureates for peace and a group of religious leaders in advocating for the Bank to adopt the recommendations of the Extractive Industries Review (EIR) that the Bank itself commissioned. However an industry counter-lobby has also picked up momentum, with companies such as Anglo-American contacting decision-makers to challenge the review’s findings. The companies are especially concerned about the recommendations on phasing out Bank support for oil and coal projects and the concept of free prior informed consent for affected communities.

The review was commissioned by World Bank president James Wolfensohn in response to campaigns and community resistance to World Bank oil, gas and mining projects. The Bank at first attempted to control the review and is now seeking to distance itself from its recommendations. In February Bank management’s initial response note was leaked, revealing proposals to reject most of the main EIR recommendations. The Bank has since distanced itself from this note, saying that it was a work in progress and will be reworked for submission to the Bank’s board in April ahead of a decision expected early May.

The letter from nobel peace prize winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jody Williams, Rigoberta Menchu and others commented that “war, poverty, climate change, greed, corruption, and ongoing violations of human rights – all of these scourges are all too often linked to the oil and mining industries. The review provides an extraordinary opportunity to direct the resources of the World Bank Group in a way that is truly oriented towards a better future for all”.

Further pressure was put on the Bank to take action on human rights at a 1 March conference at New York University. Hosted by leading former UN human rights leaders Mary Robinson and Philip Alston the conference was attended by the heads of both the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation, its private sector arm. Wolfensohn claimed “we are giving effect to the agenda of the human rights community … [but] because of the history of our organization and because of the nature of how we need to progress things with our board and with our client countries, that we tend to approach it from an economic and from a social point of view”. Other senior Bank officials indicated, however, that they were preparing for the Bank to take a more active stance on civil and political rights.

The Bank’s responses to the extractives review and the human rights proposals will be carefully scrutinised. Many groups believe that the Bank should submit its operations to the scrutiny of international human rights bodies but that the Bank is not a suitable body to actively champion and interpret the entire human rights agenda.