Using human rights tribunal to force Bank compliance: Uruguayan paper mill

23 January 2006 | Guest comment

The recent filing of two international complaints against the IFC and MIGA-financed installation of what would be the world’s largest production of paper pulp in Fray Bentos Uruguay posits a unique experiment in bringing World Bank projects under the scrutiny and judicial control of international human rights tribunals with the power and leverage to enforce international human rights and environmental law.

The Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA) filed two international complaints last September, one to the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) (see page 2) which reviews social and environmental policy compliance of IFC and MIGA-financed projects; the second to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (the Commission), the international judicial body that exists to ensure that international human rights are respected and protected in the Americas. This is the first time that a World Bank-financed development project is directly implicated in an international human rights violation case brought to an international tribunal, and the first time that the Commission is formally addressing alleged violations of human rights of local stakeholders due to Bank-sponsored investments.

The Commission generally receives complaints based on violations of human rights perpetrated by governments, mostly focused on violations of civil and political rights, such as the right to freedom of expression. Over the past decades, however, there have been a growing number of cases coming to the Commission based on violations of economic, social and cultural rights, and other procedural rights, such as access to information, similar to the types of rights violated in the paper mill projects. The appearance of a World Bank project in a human rights tribunal, is unique and is drawing the attention of many observers who are curious to see how this international legal mechanism fares for IFI-financed problems.

first time that a World Bank-financed project is directly implicated in an international human rights violation case

The Uruguayan paper mill case involves many violations of social and environmental rights and standards: of IFC and MIGA safeguards; the human rights of thousands of local stakeholders, such as the right of participation, access to information, right to development, right to health, right to a healthy environment, right to water; as well as violations of international bilateral treaty law between Argentina and Uruguay.

The case has already passed a first hurdle- the CAO has come out strongly against the IFC/MIGA project and is presently conducting a compliance audit, based on initial findings showing clear IFC policy violations. The CAO has stated the need to take seriously the concerns of local communities and has questioned the quality of the IFC-sponsored social and environmental impact assessments, which are central to the case and to the project’s ultimate advancement.

The CAO filing was followed immediately by the claim to the Commission against the government of Uruguay, for not taking into account the rights of local citizens, in the project’s zone of influence both in Argentina and in Uruguay. The Commission, by mandate, cannot rule against the World Bank, but can enforce social and environmental compliance. Since Uruguay is the host country for this IFC project its government must face the human rights claims before the tribunal. The claim presented to the Commission is a landmark action in that it has opened up a channel for bringing governments into accountable justice mechanisms for actions sponsored by international financial institutions, which have traditionally operated largely in a judicial void due to their supposed and often self-proclaimed immunity to international law. The Commission has already initiated an investigation into the allegations made by CEDHA and almost 40,000 stakeholders who have signed both petitions.

Further, the Commission admitted the CAO’s preliminary report on the case, and CAO staff met recently with Commission staff to discuss the case. At the very least, this encounter establishes an important precedent for the provision of legitimate auditing measurements from an IFI control body to a binding judicial process. This lends enormous access to justice leverage to the great limitations the IFI control bodies have to render any sort of binding recommendations – one of the more serious critiques of bodies such as the CAO.

One of the venues CEDHA is exploring with this case, is the potential to use international human rights mechanisms to bring World Bank projects to justice, especially given the accountability void we generally face in IFI-financed activity. Another venue of great significance which is already showing some potential for further development, is the institutional collaboration between bodies like the CAO with binding international judicial mechanisms like the Commission. The Commission, in this case, might be a useful ally for the CAO when it runs into institutional impasse within the Bank.

Jorge Daniel Taillant is executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA) in Argentina.