Safeguards: World Bank urged to incorporate human rights commitments “in all of its activities”

8 April 2013

As the consultations on the World Bank’s safeguards review progress, indigenous peoples groups and NGOs raised concerns over the process. There were also increased calls for the Bank to respect human rights in its policies, including a report from a UN Special Rapporteur.

A March letter to Bank president Jim Yong Kim, endorsed by 74 indigenous peoples organisations, NGOs and academic institutions, referred to outstanding concerns from previous communication to the Bank regarding the safeguards review process (see Update 83, 82, 81). This included concerns that “there has been as yet no clear and specific outreach for indigenous people’s organisations” and “limited input on the key emerging issue areas”, such as free prior and informed consent (FPIC). The letter also echoed concerns raised by others about the consultation process, including “a lack of opportunity for in-depth discussions of specific issues, a lack of outreach to national non-governmental organisations and very short consultation times.” It expressed worry that “as we approach the midway point of phase one of the consultations these process concerns have not been addressed”, which would risk “undermining the whole consultation and undermining the results gained.” The letter listed ten recommendations for the Bank, including “specific consultation with indigenous peoples” and “working groups on FPIC [free prior and informed consent] and land tenure … to provide inputs and guidance in the drafting of the IP [Indigenous Peoples] policy update”.

Earlier in February a letter to the Bank, signed by 26 Latin American organisations, also criticised the safeguard consultation format and listed a number of recommendations for the review. This included a call for expansion of the safeguards review to cover not only loan operations and for the Bank to avoid the International Finance Corporation’s, the Bank’s private sector arm, model, “with more delegation of responsibilities for compliance directly to the client”. The letter also argued for the importance of retaining an independent safeguard policy for indigenous peoples and for improved environmental assessments. Furthermore, the groups asked for “sanctions for non-compliance of safeguards and a robust system for remediation” included in contracts between the Bank and states.

unacceptable that the World Bank refuses to engage in a discussion about how to promote universally accepted human rights

The importance of indigenous peoples’ rights was also raised in a February draft paper prepared for the May session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by Eva Biaudet, a member of the forum. The paper argued that the safeguards review process is “a unique opportunity to positively align the Bank’s policies and practice with respecting, recognising and promoting the human rights of indigenous peoples”, noting that: “None of the safeguard policies have yet been revised to reflect the articles set out in the UN Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples]”. The paper’s recommendations included that the Bank should “develop its policies and procedures in a fashion that fully recognises and respects the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples”, maintain “legal recognition of indigenous peoples collective ownership to their lands, territories and natural resources” and incorporate FPIC “in its safeguard policies and project-related instruments.”

In early March, 34 NGOs, including US based Accountability Counsel and Humanitywatch in Bangladesh, wrote to Anna Brandt, Nordic-Baltic executive director of the Bank and chair of the board’s Committee on Development Effectiveness (CODE), requesting that a formal invitation to participate in the review should be extended to the Bank’s accountability mechanism, the Inspection Panel (IP). The letter argued that with almost 20 years of experience the IP is “well placed to provide insights and recommendations to the Bank in its review of the safeguards”. Brandt responded in a mid March letter that the concern about the IP’s involvement “is not only valid, it is something I have been concerned with myself”, but noted that “CODE is not managing the review process, so it is not for me to send an invitation letter to the Panel”, which would fall on the Bank management. Brandt further clarified that the Bank “will take the lessons from previous Panel cases as a valuable input to the review”, and that the IP itself was regularly briefed and given the opportunity for input.

Human rights in the spotlight

A February report from the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, urged the Bank “to seize the opportunity of the safeguard review process to commit to human rights in all its activities”, to ensure that it “maintain[s] its position as a central player in the effort to combat social exclusion, empower communities as actors for their own development and eliminate poverty at its roots.” Rolnik argued that: “As a specialised agency [of the UN], and as subject to international law, the World Bank is required at a minimum to respect the purposes set forth of in Article 55 of the [UN] Charter, including the ‘universal respect for, and observance of, human rights’.” Noting the sole focus on investment lending in the review, she raised “serious concerns about how the Bank ensures robust social and environment risk management and accountability” in the “growing share” of other instruments and modalities “to which safeguard policies do not apply” and recommended the Bank “to undertake (and require borrowers to undertake) human rights due diligence in all of its activities, including investment lending, development policy lending and the newly adopted Program-for-Results.” She also raised “cautions against the reliance on incomplete and inadequate country systems”. Furthermore, she highlighted a perceived “resistance among Bank staff to the current framework of safeguard policies”, including “little structural incentive” for staff to adhere to the policies, and recommended the review to “examine alternative staff performance and incentive structures”.

Meanwhile, two recent reports commissioned by the Bank and the Nordic Trust Fund, an initiative to help the Bank develop a more informed view on human rights (see Update 71), came out strongly in favour of human rights approaches. A late 2012 study of human rights and economics by GHK Consulting Ltd noted that “human rights add value when it comes to the quality of economic growth, and specifically the distribution of growth within a society” and should therefore be seen “as a framework for economic development, which can inform economic policy and guide social welfare on aspects related, in particular, to equity.” It argued that “human rights can be an effective tool for poverty reduction” for several reasons, including their contribution to “empowerment and social protection for marginalised groups” and their reinforcement of “equity and equality by emphasising non-discrimination”. The report further noted that: “Human rights are grounded in international and often national law and based on ratified commitments by states; these laws and commitments are often ignored in development programming.”

Furthermore, a February review of human rights impact assessments (HRIAs), authored by consultant Eitan Felner, noted that they include a focus on concerns “that often do not receive sufficient attention in standard impact assessment, such as issues of transparency, accountability or cultural adaptability.” The report concluded that “HRIAs have several unique features that can contribute to the assessment of policies or projects in a way that adds value and is complementary to other types of impact assessments.” Moreover: “Although other types of impact assessments are often underpinned by human right values and principles, making explicit links with the normative and legal framework of human rights can reinforce existing good practice on elements such as participation and equality, ensuring that these concerns are applied in a more consistent and comprehensive manner, and lending moral and legal legitimacy to the overall assessment exercise.” Furthermore: “The legal nature of the human rights framework can give greater force to recommendations arising from a HRIA” which “gives the recommendations a unique significance and force and may limit the extent to which trade-offs are acceptable.”

Jorge Daniel Taillant of Argentinian NGO Center for Human Rights and Environment said: “It’s unacceptable in this age, that as an organisation whose foremost goal is the reduction of poverty, the World Bank refuses to engage in a substantive discussion about how to advance lending to promote the progressive realisation of universally accepted human rights.”

Bank revision of environmental, health and safety guidelines

Following the update of the IFC’s performance standards (see Update 77), the Bank Group in February launched a three year review to update its environmental, health and safety (EHS) guidelines. The guidelines are the Bank’s “technical reference documents with general and industry-specific examples of good international industry practice”, used in conjunction with the Bank’s safeguards, IFC’s performance standards or the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency’s sustainability framework. In Phase I, which will conclude in October, the guidelines on agribusiness, oil and gas, chemicals, and power will be updated.