Justice or conditionality by another name?

World Bank statement at the Human Rights Council

5 July 2006

In a statement at the first session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2006, Joseph Ingram, special representative of the World Bank to the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation stated that the advancement of human rights is “critical” to the Bank’s own poverty reduction mission, including the “global fight against corruption and the promotion of good governance”. This statement follows former legal counsel Roberto Dañino’s public statement in January 2006, which put to rest any previous claims by the Bank that it is legally exempt from taking human rights into account (see Update 51). It has been greeted with scepticism from civil society, and critics are doubtful that the Bank intends to consider the full spectrum of rights- economic, social, cultural, civil and political- as enshrined in international human rights law. The statement fails to explicitly address the institution’s long-held assertions that its Articles of Agreement prevent it from straying into the realms of civil and political rights, or to address the Bank’s own complicity in the violation of human rights.

The statement claims that the Bank’s legal department has developed a ‘human rights matrix’ which “maps current Bank policies and activities against the provisions of international human rights treaties and covenants”. The matrix aims to “enable the Bank to be more strategic in supporting the provision of basic services- as rights- through its existing instruments, such as its operational policies, country assistance strategies, the poverty and social impact assessment, and poverty reduction strategies.” The Bank is also working closely with Nordic governments on “operationalising the Bank’s wider Justice and Human Rights agenda”, with a view to setting up a trust fund to “finance pilot efforts using human rights as an instrument for more effective development”. The Bank says it is engaged in discussion with several governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia to implement such pilot projects, and in collaborative efforts with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to support the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

Any cautious welcome that this statement has received has been virtually overshadowed by strong fears that the Bank’s adoption of the human rights discourse is in fact more about the creation of greater governance conditionality than a genuine commitment not to finance activities that contravene international human rights law, to take full responsibility where the activities of the institution negatively impact or undermine the enjoyment of human rights, or to address its complicity in past abuses. Moreover, the statement reduces the legal concepts of economic, social and cultural rights to “basic services”, and ignores the negative effects of Bank-funded large infrastructure, or extractive projects (see Update 47) on the access to productive resources – like land and water – as well as the massive displacement related to these projects which have undermined the rights to food, water, health and housing, amongst others.

the Bank should avoid imposing a 'double punishment'

Ute Hausmann, of the German section of FIAN remarked: “this statement is part of the World Banks’s efforts to place the blame for human rights violations entirely on borrowing countries while the complicity of the Bank in these human rights violations remains unpunished. The Human Rights Council should establish procedures to hold the World Bank – and the governments that make up its Board – accountable for violations which have been facilitated by World Bank funding and advice.”

In May, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, emphasised accountability as an essential part of the process and states the Bank’s role is not to promote human rights ‘per se’, but rather that country assistance strategies should have a human rights approach. However, he points out that currently, this is impeded by the incentive structure “to lend more and more money”. He shows how the Bank’s awareness on human rights is patchy: Although it protested over the arrest of the two transparency activists in Congo-Brazzaville and Chad’s attempts to spend its pipeline revenue on military rather than social ends, it also has ignored the suppression of political activists and continued to lend, as in Nepal, Pakistan, Vietnam and Russia. In his statement, Dañino stipulated that “the Bank should avoid imposing a ‘double punishment’ on the people of its member countries by withholding development assistance from those already disadvantaged by their countries’ poor human rights records”. He also made it clear that the Bank’s role “is not that of an enforcer of human rights obligations”.