UN says World Bank and IMF “bound by international law”

21 November 2005

Bold statements made by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food argue that international law is binding on organisations such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO. In his September interim report to the UN General Assembly, Jean Ziegler analyses negative impacts of the policies of the World Bank and IMF on the human rights of vulnerable populations in the South. Given that the power of nation-states is often “eclipsed by other actors”, the traditional boundaries of human rights to regulate the power of other international actors such as the BWIs should be extended, and systematically elaborated.

Ziegler analyses the current crisis in Niger (see Update47), which he attributes in part to the market-based paradigm imposed by the World Bank and IMF, including cost-recovery policies in health centres, and the privatisation of public services. Ziegler also refers to large projects that have resulted in human rights violations stemming from forced displacement and involuntary resettlement. For instance, the Kedung Ombo dam in Indonesia led to 12,000 people losing their land and livelihoods; while the Bank’s internal Inspection Panel recommendations for compensation and rehabilitation of those affected by a coal-mine in Jharkhand, India, were largely ignored.

The analysis is also extended to the far-reaching impacts of structural adjustment and PRSPs, which “far from improving food security for the most vulnerable, have often resulted in a deterioration of food security among the poorest”. He uses case studies in Zambia and India to illustrate how such WB/IMF-imposed measures to drastically cut public spending, liberalise trade, and ‘flexibilise’ land, labour and financial markets has violated economic, social and cultural rights.

the programmes imposed by the IMF and World Bank have a profound influence on the right to food

He premises that “the programmes of economic reform imposed by IMF and World Bank in indebted countries have a profound and direct influence on the situation of the right to food and food security”.

The report challenges the Bank and Fund’s denial of their human rights responsibilities, including the claim that they are restricted by their articles of agreement. The Bank and Fund’s claim that they are organisations not states overlooks the widely recognised view that human rights find their source not only in treaties, but also in customary law. The obligation to realise the right to adequate food has become part of customary international law, given the almost universal ratification of treaties that contain it. Furthermore most member states of these institutions have ratified at least one human rights treaty in which the right to food is contained.

With power must come responsibility

Ziegler suggests that in order to fully comply with their obligations under the right to food, international organisations must “respect, protect and support the fulfilment of the right to food by their member states”. He concludes that the Bank and Fund should at least recognise their minimum obligation to refrain from promoting policies or projects that negatively impact the right to food, particularly where no social safety nets are implemented. Lastly, they should also recognise positive obligations by ensuring that those they sponsor do not violate the right to food in the implementation of common projects, and should support governments in the fulfilment of the right to food.