Justice or conditionality by another name? World Bank at the Human Rights Council

11 September 2006

versión en español

In a statement at the first session of the human rights council in Geneva in June, 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”. Any cautious welcome that this statement has received has been overshadowed by fears that the Bank’s adoption of the human rights discourse is more about the creation of greater governance conditionality. A genuine commitment to human rights principles would include not financing activities that contravene international human rights law; taking full responsibility where the activities of the institution negatively impact or undermine the enjoyment of human rights; and addressing its complicity in past abuses.

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.” However, 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. Aldo Caliari from the Center of Concern stated “it is particularly worrisome that the Bank feels it can fulfill its obligations by doing a ‘mapping’, on its own, of how its activities measure up to human rights standards. The law is not only what is in the law, but also what the judge says is in the law. If the ‘judge’ in this case is going to be the Bank, I don’t think we can expect much out of the exercise.”

the Bank's human rights discourse is more about the creation of greater governance conditionality

Ute Hausmann, of the German section of Foodfirst Information and Action Network remarked: “this statement is part of the World Bank’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.”

The statement at the human rights council 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). However, this was greeted with scepticism from many critics who point out that his position has scarcely moved beyond that of Shihata who was legal counsel during the 1990s.